German minister struck off SPD campaign team over limo scandal | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 29.07.2009
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German minister struck off SPD campaign team over limo scandal

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has been denied a spot on the Social Democrats' shadow cabinet after she was found using her official car and driver while on holiday in Spain.

Germany's health minister Ulla Schmidt enters her car as she arrives back at Berlin Tegel airport from her vacation in Denia, Spain.

Ulla Schmidt is at the center of a political storm

Her stolen Mercedes S-class may have since resurfaced in Spain, but Ulla Schmidt is back in Berlin, attempting to minimize the damage the scandal has done to the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Despite looking tanned and relaxed as she landed at Berlin's Tegel Airport, one thing was already clear - she will not be included as a member of the shadow cabinet of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor in September's general election.

According to SPD insiders, Schmidt will first be required to turn over all the paperwork dealing with the use of her car in Spain to the Bundestag and the German Federal Court of Auditors. If she is cleared of wrongdoing, she may then be permitted to join the campaign team, German news station N24 reported.

Speaking to reporters from a meeting of SPD leaders in Potsdam, Steinmeier said he and Schmidt reached the decision jointly over the phone.

Steinmeier is due to officially launch his campaign on Thursday, when he will announce the team of people he would appoint as ministers if he is elected chancellor. But the launch is being marred by the negative attention focused on Schmidt.

Schmidt in the hot seat

She will now face questions over her decision to have her chauffeur drive the armored car from Berlin to Alicante, Spain - a distance of more than 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) - at taxpayers' expense.

Schmidt's office has argued that it was more economical for the minister to have the car brought to Spain for her to use on official government business, than to use a local hired car.

Schmidt also said that she intended to pay back expenses incurred for her private use of the car according to government guidelines.

Her use of the car may have gone undetected, had it not gone missing after the key was stolen from her driver's holiday residence. On Wednesday, the vehicle was found near Schmidt's holiday resort in Alicante, German federal police confirmed.

Ulla Schmidt's official car

Schmidt's car has since been recovered

The car, a Mercedes S-class saloon valued at 93,000 euros ($132,000) appears to be undamaged, according to Spanish media reports. It's thought the thieves lost interest in the vehicle after all the attention it generated.

Low ratings for SPD

The episode is a blow that Steinmeier and the SPD can ill afford. The SPD trails Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by more than 10 points in surveys. And a survey on the candidates' personal approval ratings, Merkel has a 37-point-lead over Steinmeier.

Many analysts say it's not just that Steinmeier has failed to inspire the electorate; they blame the SPD for failing to set out a coherent election platform, develop its own profile or promote its values.

The furor over Schmidt's use of her official car while on holiday has been a gift to the SPD's critics, and a disappointment to the party's supporters.

"This is a problem for the SPD because it has captured the headlines and is a big negative at the start of the campaign," Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University, told Reuters news agency.

dc/dpa/Reuters

Editor: Neil King

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