Outspoken German politician hits back in Swiss tax dispute

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Peer Steinbrück, the former Germany finance minister who is to run as the Social-Democrat (SPD) challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel next year, has demonstrated his tendency for plain speaking by calling Swiss bankers 'Indians' in a move that seems to set the tone for his electoral campaign.

At a recent event with Swiss bankers, Steinbrück repeated his famous comment, comparing the Swiss with Indians who have to be threatened by the cavalry before they'll run. However, he remained serious on the issues, a firm 'no' to tax treaties with a withholding tax on black money.

In 2009, he called for European governments to use "the whip" against Switzerland in the fight against tax evasion.

On Saturday morning at the party convention in the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Münster, Steinbrück made his first appearance since his nomination as the SPD's candidate.

In his speech, Steinbrück again alluded to the previous provocation on the tax policy in Switzerland.

"Whether I'm seeing pictures of the cavalry, I don't really know," he said. "Sometimes I have the impression that we should not just talk about it, but ought to saddle it."

Steinbrück might be unpopular in Switzerland as a result of his comparisons, but in Germany he has a reputation as someone with a sharp tongue and provocative sayings which he likes to unleash against bankers and tax dodgers.

The imagery he creates by using words like 'cavalry' and 'Indians' has in Germany given him an image as a person with grim determination and the aura of the avenger of the less fortunate people against those who send their money to tax havens.

Perceived as a loose cannon, in sharp contrast with Merkel, Steinbrück has been told in confidential SPD discussions to moderate his tone.

Working well with Merkel

In Germany, Steinbrück is widely respected for his handling of the financial crisis as Merkel's finance minister in the 12 months following the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehmann Brothers in the United States. He and Merkel then worked well together in getting the German economy back on track.

Steinbrück has also been in the headlines as he in a report introduced his concept for controlling the financial markets and preventing a repeat of the financial crisis.

In the report, he calls for splitting off investment banking from the traditional lending and savings functions associated with retail banking.

Steinbrück also foresees the creation of a bank-financed aid fund to bail out financial institutions in crisis, and controls on certain types of transactions.

According to Eurointelligence, Kurt Kister, political analyst for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Steinbruck was the only available SPD candidate left, but Steinbrück is very unlikely to become chancellor.

In particular, Kister dismisses the strategic option most frequently mentioned these days of an centre-left coalition - SPD, Greens, and FDP – given the desolate state of the FDP. Kister says the most likely outcome is a Grand Coalition, reminiscent of the 2005-2009 period, with Merkel as chancellor and Steinbrück as finance minister.

A recent poll conducted by the ARD broadcaster showed that 58% of the Germans think Steinbrück is a good candidate as opposed to 21% who disagree.

But if the respondents could only choose one candidate, 50% would choose Merkel, and only 36% would support Steinbrück.

Timeline: 
  • Fall 2013: Federal election in Germany.
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