German challenger attacks Merkel in feisty Ash Wednesday speech

Wed Feb 13, 2013 11:10am EST
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By Noah Barkin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel's main challenger in this year's German election attacked her record in a combative speech on Ash Wednesday, accusing the chancellor of stealing policy ideas and cynically profiting from reforms introduced by his Social Democrats (SPD).

Peer Steinbrueck, a former finance minister whose campaign to unseat the popular Merkel got off to a disastrous start last year, tried to reassure the SPD faithful about their prospects in the September vote, vowing to fight for victory and showing off the sardonic wit and feistiness for which he is known.

"The voters need to decide whether they want a politician whose edges have been filed back to nothing, or someone who isn't afraid to speak out for what they believe in," said Steinbrueck, mocking Merkel's cautious leadership style.

The one-hour speech was one of several being given across Bavaria on what is known in Germany as "Political Ash Wednesday", a long-standing tradition in which politicians spar with each other to mark the end of carnival season.

The verbal exchanges became a national phenomenon in the mid-1970s thanks to Franz-Josef Strauss, the bullish former leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), whose colorful attacks on the opposition were legendary.

"It's not true that I eat a Social Democrat for breakfast every day," the corpulent Strauss once barked. "I only eat what I like."

This year, the war of words was expected to be unusually scrappy. In addition to the federal election, voters in Bavaria will also go to the polls in September to pick a regional government.

The SPD is fighting an uphill battle. While Merkel is hugely popular thanks to her defense of German interests in the euro zone debt crisis, Steinbrueck's ratings have slid after a series of gaffes and outrage over his lucrative speaking engagements.   Continued...

Peer Steinbrueck, Social Demrocratic top candidate for the 2013 German general election speaks during a debate about the European banking union in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter