If you get the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine this weekend, one of the candidates for the office of chancellor of this Federal Republic is on the cover, sticking his middle finger right up at you. “Buy this magazine, then fuck off,” it seems to be saying. Unfortunately, it’s not Angela Merkel, who could actually afford to do this and still win the election. And it’s not one of the leaders of any of those Pirate-type, trendy “anti-politics” parties either.
It’s Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate – the steadiest and staidest of career politicians, the man who worked his way up from a middle class family through the SPD and government ranks, and finally became Germany’s finance minister and steered the country through the financial crisis of 2008. There he is, collar undone, mouth open in an unsettling sneer, staring defiantly at his potential electorate, saying, “Vote for me, or not – like I give a shit.” Actually he’s not saying that, he’s responding to a question in the SZ’s “silent interview” series, where celebrities have to do a gesture instead of saying things. In this case, the question was “You don’t have to worry about nice nicknames, do you?” – after listing some of the mean names the media has called him in the last year or so.
But even with the question right there beneath the image on the cover of the magazine, this context doesn’t really come across – what comes across is an election candidate on the brink of a nervous breakdown, staking his last rouble in the game of election roulette. It’s all or nothing now – either this picture will sweep him to power on a wave of admiration for the ballsiness – and Steinbrück’s faith in the “humour of the Germans” – or the electorate will dismiss him and his party as unelectable fools. As reporters quickly established, one Steinbrück aide attempted to kill the image, only for his boss himself to insist that it was all fine. “What have I got to lose? Those bastards aren’t gonna vote for me anyway.” So Steinbrück approved the image, which at least might alleviate some of the cynicism about how modern election campaigns are run. Either way, it will make for some Photoshop fun to go with Merkel’s own empty trademark hand gesture.