BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's election rival took more fire Friday for a magazine cover showing him making the vulgar middle-finger gesture, with many questioning his fitness to lead the nation. While some defended the photo as a human and ironic gesture, most commentators questioned the political judgement of Peer Steinbrueck, 66, in allowing himself to be shown flipping the bird and then authorising the picture's publication.
The striking black-and-white portrait of the Social Democratic candidate was published in a newspaper's weekly magazine but had already gone viral online, sparking a storm of criticism and ridicule on social media ahead of the September 22 vote.
The most damning commentary, predictably, came from the ruling conservatives, who said it showed Steinbrueck - with personal approval ratings that lag behind Merkel by 20-30 points - had already thrown in the towel.
"Someone who presents himself like that before the elections doesn't want to become chancellor," lawmaker Wolfgang Bosbach of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) told the Osnabruecker Zeitung daily.
The photo of Steinbrueck - a former finance minister and self-styled "straight talk" politician - was taken more than a month ago for the magazine's regular photo essay format in which subjects are asked to respond non-verbally to questions.
The gesture by a sneering Steinbrueck was his response to nicknames such as "Problem Peer" given to him by the media over a series of blunders and gaffes that had especially hobbled the early months of his campaign.
Communications expert Stephan Lermer judged the picture "a pubescent gesture, extremely vulgar - and this from a public person and chancellor candidate, a role model, who would represent 80 million Germans on the world stage."
Lermer predicted the picture would become iconic and define Steinbrueck, the way Albert Einstein is best remembered for the photo with his tongue out.
"As Germans, we have to cringe," he said. "It will cost him votes. The gesture is unappetising. It lacks class. It will especially turn off elder, conservative voters ... He thought he could score with irony, but the Germans are a serious people."
Social Democratic Party (SPD) chief Sigmar Gabriel had jumped to the defence of the candidate, saying on Twitter that Steinbrueck "used an ironic photo interview to ironically show emotions".
Steinbrueck defended himself late Thursday at a campaign event in Munich, where his party faces crucial Bavarian state elections Sunday.
In the photo essay with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's magazine, he said, "You are asked questions and have to respond with gestures, grimaces, emotions. You're acting."
"And I hope that the country will understand that the grimaces and gestures relate to the question, and show a sense of humour."
But many were not amused, especially in government ranks.
"Angela Merkel also has a sense of humour, but you wouldn't see such a photo or gesture of her, that's the difference," said CDU lawmaker Steffen Kampeter.
"Peer Steinbrueck's personality means there is a limit to his fitness for political leadership posts. He's a funny guy, but chancellors face extreme situations and have to be aware every second that they represent Germany".
The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel didn't buy the irony defence either, commenting that "the finger is a question mark, the candidate a riddle, an impossible chancellor".
Its editor Stephan-Andreas Casdorff said on N24 television: "If he thinks he will speak to young voters like that - he is 66 - then I think that's a mistake. Because young people will say, 'that's unreal! He is 66'."
The image stood in stark contrast to one of Merkel - often called Europe's most powerful leader - on the cover of Friday's Economist weekly with her hands clasped in front, all fingers neatly in place, with the headline "One woman to rule them all".