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Germany: Politician Resigns Over Frequent-Flyer-Miles Scandal

  • Roland Eggleston

Less than two months before elections, German politicians are under pressure to disclose whether they have abused travel privileges they earn by flying frequently on official business. The affair has already led to the resignation of Gregor Gysi, the economics minister in the city-state of Berlin. Gysi is a prominent member of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to the East German Communist Party.

Munich, 1 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At the heart of the most recent political affair gripping Germany are the frequent-flyer points awarded by the German national airline Lufthansa.

Frequent-flyer programs, such as Lufthansa's "Bonus Miles," are common on almost all Western airlines. A customer gains "miles," or points, for each paid flight taken. When sufficient points are accrued, the customer gets a free flight.

In Germany, however, this does not apply to politicians who earn points while on official business trips. A 1997 law forbids this.

Politicians who violate the rules normally receive a reprimand from parliament. They may also have to pay the cost of the flight out of their own pocket.

This week, German media published the names of several politicians who allegedly cashed in bonus miles earned on political flights for private travel. These include Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin and a key member of the Opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Gunther Nooke. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Like most of those named, Trittin said the bonus miles he used for private flights were earned by private travel and had nothing to do with his political journeys. "Since I was appointed a federal minister [in 1998], I have made five private flights, [and these were] with bonus miles earned from personal travel," Trittin said.

Gregor Gysi, the economics minister in the government of the city-state of Berlin, admitted that he did misuse frequent-flyer miles for a personal trip he made to Cuba while he was a member of the federal parliament.

This week, Gysi said his personal guilt was so great that he would resign his post and return to private life. In a press statement, Gysi said, "I have made a mistake for which I cannot forgive myself."

Gysi is a prominent member of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the former East German Communist Party. In January, he led the PDS to share power with the Social Democrats in Berlin.

His resignation is a blow to the party, which is struggling for recognition and had hoped that Gysi's success in Berlin could help it win support in western Germany.

The chairwoman of the PDS, Gabi Zimmer, told reporters she believes Gysi "overreacted" by resigning. Zimmer and other PDS leaders said they made every effort to persuade Gysi to change his mind, but he refused.

Political analysts in Germany suggest Gysi used the bonus-miles affair as an excuse to leave politics. When Gysi accepted the Berlin post in January, he had hoped to create an economic revival in the capital but was unable to stop businesses from closing and failed to attract significant new investment.

Gysi's decision has opened a debate on the importance of the bonus-miles affair.

Critics reject the flood of media reports as mere "summer theater." Munich political scientist Johann Mueller said the misuse of frequent-flyer miles is mild compared with the violations of financial regulations by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrat party.

The president of parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, told reporters in Berlin today that the bonus-miles affair is insignificant in comparison to recent breaches of party finance laws. He said politicians should respect the laws they have themselves approved, but they should also keep a sense of proportion about the offenses. "Politicians should keep the rules that they themselves have accepted. They should honor the laws that they have themselves formulated and passed into law. However, I ask that they should keep a sense of proportion. I call to mind the serious violations of the law on political parties and the cases of corruption in politics and above all in the economy. Against these, the violation of rules which is now before us -- which caused no real financial damage to anyone -- in comparison with these serious violations of the law, this breach of the rules is a small matter. We should have understanding for that," Thierse said.

Thierse said he asked Lufthansa to turn over a list of all members of parliament who have taken flights using bonus miles. Lufthansa said it is reluctant to do so. It says in many cases its records make no distinction between the political and personal travel of politicians. It also said it would breach German law on protecting private data if it provided the material.