Just nine weeks before German elections, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has fired his defense minister, Rudolf Scharping, following media reports suggesting he had questionable financial dealings with a public-relations agency. Scharping had refused to resign, saying there was nothing improper about his actions. German commentators say Schroeder acted because he feared the scandal-plagued Scharping could be a political embarrassment in the tight race to win the September elections.
Berlin, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping had been plagued by scandal for more than a year. The final blow came this week when the political weekly "Stern" published a report suggesting he had improperly accepted about 71,000 euros ($72,000) from a public-relations agency.
German law forbids government ministers from earning outside income while in office.
Scharping admitted to having received money after he became defense minister in 1999, but said the money was paid under a contract signed in 1998 to write his memoirs. Part of it is also revenue from speeches he made before becoming defense minister.
Scharping said he was legally entitled to accept the money. "My behavior conformed to the law and I can't do more than that, so I saw no reason to resign. I am not obsessed with keeping my job, but I find it morally questionable to just step down, which could be interpreted as an admission to wrongdoing," Scharping said.
The magazine suggested a public-relations agency, Hunzinger, had introduced Scharping to an arms-industry lobbyist interested in gaining export approval for the sale of submarines to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Scharping refuted the story by saying as defense minister he did not need outsiders to introduce him to representatives of the arms industry.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did not comment on Scharping's explanation. But German political analysts say Schroeder had little choice but to fire the defense minister given the fact that federal elections are only weeks away.
Yesterday, Schroeder summoned the leadership of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) and after a brief meeting announced that Scharping had been dismissed. Scharping was not present at the meeting but waited outside.
In a brief statement, Schroeder said that a basis for working together with Scharping no longer existed. "I will ask the federal president to release Mr. Scharping from his post as defense minister. The necessary basis for working together in the federal government is, in my view, no longer present," Schroeder said.
A Berlin political analyst, Andrea Fischer, said Schroeder acted because the negative headlines that have followed the defense minister for the past year had made him too much of a political liability. She said opinion polls show the government and the opposition running neck and neck in the election race.
The negative headlines for Scharping began last August when another weekly magazine published photographs of the normally staid defense minister and his glamorous fiance kissing in a swimming pool on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
The photo shoot was intended to improve the defense minister's colorless public image, but unfortunately for Scharping, the photographs appeared as German troops were preparing to undertake a mission in Macedonia. The minister was criticized for relaxing at a time when troops were being sent abroad. One magazine wrote, "Soldiers at the front; Scharping in the pool."
The defense minister gained more bad publicity when he used military aircraft to fly from Berlin to Mallorca to spend a night with his fiance and arranged for another military aircraft to pick him up the next morning for the return flight. The opposition demanded his resignation but Schroeder helped him avoid any consequences.
Scharping ran into more controversy this year over the purchase of new transport aircraft for the military. He ordered more than the budget could afford. The opposition went to the Constitutional Court to overturn Scharping's decision. Again, the chancellor helped him fight off demands for his resignation.
Scharping says much of the criticism was created by the opposition Christian Democrats in a deliberate effort to drive him out of office. The opposition candidate to take over as chancellor in September, Edmund Stoiber, has dismissed the allegations as totally untrue.
But Stoiber said yesterday that Scharping's departure was long overdue. He added that, "This is a government on its way out."
Scharping told reporters he has always acted in the best interests of Germany and its soldiers and had nothing to be ashamed of. He said he would leave office with his head held high and promised legal action to restore his reputation.
He indirectly criticized Schroeder for his dismissal, saying it was wrong to remove a senior minister in a high office on the basis of unproven allegations in a magazine.
But for most German commentators the main question hanging over the affair is not Scharping's guilt or innocence but what it means for the election campaign.
The government is already under fire for failing to live up to its pledge to reduce unemployment, which remains above 9 percent, and for the economic slump. Another blow came with the collapse of the share value of the telecommunications giant, Deutsche Telecom. Millions of German workers, encouraged by the government to invest in the company, have seen the value of the shares drop dramatically. This week, Schroeder played an important role in dismissing the chief executive of Deutsche Telecom, Ron Sommer.