‘Dinnergate’ perks up German campaign

August 27, 2009

The German election campaign has so far lacked the riveting debates and explosive issues to which voters were treated in previous battles for power, perhaps because Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival, Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have worked together in the same “grand coalition” government for the past four years and neither party seems especially eager to rock the boat.

Filling the void have been several somewhat bizarre little scandals that each side has tried to use to tarnish the other, taking pot shots without resorting to full firepower. They are, after all, partners in power.

First there was Ulla Schmidt, the Social Democratic health minister whose questionable use of her official car on holiday in Spain came to light only after the car was stolen. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and opposition parties have done all they can to turn the “Dienstwagenaffaere” into a campaign issue — an example of a minister out of touch with voters for taking full advantage of government privileges — even though Schmidt insists she has done nothing wrong.

Now Merkel, the CDU chancellor, is facing criticism from the SPD and opposition parties for throwing a controversial dinner party at the chancellery (at the taxpayers’ expense) last year for Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann to mark his 60th birthday. “She told me at the time she would like to do something for me,” Ackermann told German TV in a profile of Merkel last week. “She said I should invite 30 or friends I’d like to spend an evening with to the chancellery.”

Merkel defended the meeting, saying she is always trying to bring different groups of people together at dinners.

And also in the spotlight is Economy Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the rising young star of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, for using external advisers to draft complex financial legislation.

A parliamentary budget committee has started an investigation into whether any government rules were violated. Germany’s best-selling daily Bild has already reached its verdict: “It’s all nonsense,” wrote Einar Koch in a column on Wednesday. “The petty dispute about the dinner in the chancellery shows how devoid of content the 2009 election really is. If the chancellor of Europe’s leading economic power cannot invite 25 important industry and cultural leaders to a dinner in the chancellery, then it’s ‘good night’ for Germany”. His paper’s editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann and its publisher Mathias Doepfner were among those at the Ackermann party.
So is it misuse of taxpayer money for the chancellor to throw a birthday party at her office for one of the most powerful bankers in the country? Or is it simply a smart thing to do, getting industry, political and cultural leaders together for some high-powered elbow rubbing?

Watch this space on Sunday for live blog coverage of three state German elections, just four weeks before the federal election on Sept. 27.

PHOTO – Chancellor Angela Merkel and CEO of the Deutsche Bank AG Josef Ackermann meet in Berlin. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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