Angela Merkel rival’s ballot stunt backfires with voters set to give him the finger: Gaffe-prone Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück slumps in the polls

As Germans prepared to vote this Sunday, the 66-year-old is a humiliating 27 per cent behind his conservative rival in the opinion polls

Berlin

He managed to avoid giving voters “the bird” at his final campaign rally, and his speeches are more inspiring than Angela Merkel's - yet Peer Steinbrück, the gaffe-prone Social Democrat candidate hoping to succeed her as Chancellor, still appeared light years away from election victory tonight.

As Germans prepared to vote this Sunday, Mr Steinbrück, 66, was a humiliating 27 per cent behind his conservative rival in the opinion polls. His SPD party was faring slightly better - lagging 14 per cent behind Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). There seems to be no chance of Mr Steinbrück staging a last-minute comeback and winning. But that did not prevent the former finance minister, renowned for his abrasive style and lack of tact, from putting on a spirited show at the SPD's final campaign rally in Berlin's vast communist-era Alexanderplatz square.

In a speech to 3,500 placard-waving SPD supporters tonight, Mr Steinbruck bitterly attacked Ms Merkel from a stage painted in bright socialist red. “She has no direction to give to this country,” he complained.

“She prefers to drive around safe roundabouts where there's no risk. I maybe someone who annoys, but at least with me - people know where they stanan where they will go,”he insisted. The crowd applauded. Some even cheered. Roland Assmann, a 37-year-old computer engineer and committed SPD supporter was not overly impressed: “He's got the gift o the gab, but he overdoes it sometimes. I'll vote for him but he's got no chance of beating Merkel,” he told The Independent.

Helmut Schmidt, the former SPD Chancellor, proclaimed last year that Mr Steinbrück was made of the right stuff to take on the enormously popular Ms Merkel. “Peer can do it!” he exclaimed. It was a personal blessing from on high. But one year on, that blessing seems more like a curse. It came to a head last weekend when the respected liberal daily Süddeutsche Zeitung's magazine cover showed him sticking out his middle finger, “giving the bird” to the paper's leftist readers. It was interpreted as Mr Steinbrück's grossly offensive answer to the saintly gesture often adopted by Chancellor Merkel - a nun-like joining together of the tips of her forefingers and thumbs called “The Merkel Diamond”.

The Steinbrück “bird” was meant to be a humorous response to questions from the magazine's reporters about how it felt to be a gaffe-prone candidate frequently referred to as “Perlusconi”. Mr Steinbrück insisted it was all simply a joke, but he clearly failed to appreciate the limits of Teutonic humour. The “bird” image went viral and conservative critics lambasted him as a person whose character was “clearly unsuitable” for the role of German leader.

Mr Steinbrück's trail of blunders began in October when it emerged that he, as an advocate of social justice and a minimum wage, had earned more than €1m as a corporate speaker. He compounded the impression of being obsessed with money by saying he would never buy a bottle of wine for less than €5. He went on to declare that chancellors should be better paid.

Things got worse at the time of the Italian election in February, when Mr Steinbrück said he was “appalled that two clowns [Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo] have won”. Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano, who was visiting Germany at the time, was so offended that he refused to meet the Social Democrat leader for dinner in Berlin.

Despite a slight improvement in his ratings after a televised debate with Ms Merkel, Mr Steinbrück's campaign has been dogged by a lack of strategy and the fact that the two main parties have almost identical policies. One of the most boring elections on record has thus come down to a contest of personalities, in which Angela Merkel, the self-styled Mutti, or “Mother”, of Germany is the preferred choice.

But with her liberal Free Democrat coalition partners looking as if they will fail to win enough votes to enter parliament, it seems more likely she will have to form a grand coalition with the SPD. Mr Steinbrück was finance minister in the first Merkel-led grand coaltion in 2005. But if his party joins up this time, he says he wants no part in it.

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