Peer Steinbrück, the increasingly gaffe-prone challenger to Angela Merkel in next year's German election, has ignited a political dispute by claiming that a Chancellor's pay was too low and that his opponent had an unfair advantage because she was a woman.
Peer Steinbrück, 65, a leading Social Democrat and former federal Finance Minister, is campaigning to replace Ms Merkel in a general election scheduled for September. He has pledged to fight greed, tame the power of the banks and to spell out the cost of Europe to taxpayers.
Yet so far, his bid to oust Germany's first conservative woman leader has been dogged by one blunder after another. In October, revelations that he earned €1.25m (£1m) as a guest speaker and failed to declare some of the income caused his popularity ratings to plummet.
Yesterday, Mr Steinbrück's chances of improving his standing seemed set to recede ever further after he complained in an interview with the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that although he was not yet elected Chancellor, he considered the job underpaid. "Almost every savings bank manager gets more than the Chancellor," he said. "A German Chancellor earns too little in relation to the efforts he or she is expected to make and in relation to other far better salaried posts which carry far less responsibility."
Ms Merkel is, however, one of the few European leaders to have been given a recent pay rise. Her salary for 2013 will amount to €205,000. Many of her contemporaries in Europe have accepted a pay freeze or a pay cut as part of an austerity drive in the face of the European debt crisis crippling many economies. Italy's Mario Monti agreed to forgo his salary entirely.
Mr Steinbrück's outspoken comments caused dismay within his own party. Gerhard Schröder, Germany's last Social Democrat Chancellor, insisted politicians were paid adequately. "I have always been able to live from my earnings as a politician. Anyone who thinks the pay is too low can look for another job," he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Yet Mr Steinbrück's series of blunders did not end there. In other comments to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, he attributed Ms Merkel's success as a Chancellor to the fact she was a woman. "She is popular because she has got the bonus of being a woman," he told the newspaper.
The news magazine Der Spiegel's verdict was unequivocal. "Steinbrück now stands out as somebody who is always concerned about money – even if it involves such an important office as that of Chancellor," it said. "The fact he now has something to say about an alleged 'woman's bonus' reinforces the impression that he has a problem with his choice of words."
An opinion poll yesterday showed Mr Steinbrück is Germany's fourth most-popular politician, 5 percentage points behind a regional Social Democrat state Prime Minister and at least 10 percentage points behind Ms Merkel. Mr Steinbrück's Social Democrats face a crucial test next month in elections in the state of Lower Saxony, where they are poised to wrest power from the ruling conservative-liberal coalition with the help of the Green Party. The power struggle mirrors the forthcoming general election and is considered an important test of voter sympathy.