Limousine scandal distracts Germany′s Social Democrats ahead of elections | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.08.2009
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Limousine scandal distracts Germany's Social Democrats ahead of elections

The latest news about a senior cabinet member using her limousine during vacation are likely to deliver another setback for Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Socialist candidate for chancellor is trailing in the polls.

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt

Ulla Schmidt says she used the car due to security concerns

The Social Democrats' (SPD) candidate to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel already is in an uphill battle. Opinion polls give dismal ratings to both Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his party. And instead of focusing his energy on defeating the conservative chancellor, he finds himself distracted by the legal troubles of a senior SPD cabinet member.

Health Minister Ulla Schmidt has been unable to shake off outrage from political opponents over her use of a government limousine during her private vacation. The issue has become one more unwelcome distraction for Steinmeier.

Mixing business and pleasure?

The story first came to light when her limousine was reported stolen in the Spanish town of Alicante. Opposition politicians were outraged that she would have her chauffeur drive her car across Europe to Spain, calling it a waste of taxpayers' money.

Schmidt, however, was able to prove to the federal accounting office that the use of car had been properly documented in line with rules and regulations – she even offered to pay the money for the trip to calm public anger over the issue.

Steinmeier had initially left Schmidt out of this campaign team when the story broke in July, but later brought her back into his shadow cabinet after she'd been cleared by authorities.

SPD candidate for Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier's SPD is trailing Chancellor Merkel's CDU by more than 10 percent

On Monday her ministry said that Schmidt used her car and driver not only this summer but every single year since 2004, stressing, however, that the minister had meticulously distinguished between official and private use in accordance to official regulations. Schmidt had used the car primarily because of security concerns, the ministry said.

Election woes

Members of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats are calling for Schmidt to be removed from the shadow cabinet or even to step down as health minister. The federal accounting office said it will look into Schmidt's use of her car.

Steinmeier currently heads the SPD as junior partner in a grand coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). He's vice chancellor and foreign minister, but hopes to muster enough votes on September 27th to become chancellor.

Opinion polls, however, suggest he's in for a tough struggle to make that plan work. In the latest survey commissioned the SPD would get a mere 22 percent if voters had to go to the polls now. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, combined with their sister party, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, would get a comfortable 37 percent.

The opinion poll puts Merkel on track to become chancellor of a right-of-center coalition. The CDU's preferred coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), are on 15 percent support, which would give the CDU and FDP combined a majority of 52 percent.

ai/dpa/AP/Reuters
Editor: Trinity Hartman

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