BERLIN (Reuters) - A magazine photograph that depicts Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-left challenger making a vulgar gesture stirred sharp criticism from his political rivals on Thursday, 10 days before the German election.
The photograph, on the front page of Friday's edition of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung Magazine, shows Peer Steinbrueck making a gesture with his middle finger in response to a question referring to the gaffe-prone early months of his campaign.
Though Steinbrueck authorised the publication of the photo, it could damage his bid to oust Merkel as chancellor by reinforcing a public image of him as arrogant and maladroit - especially among women voters, whose support he needs.
It comes as Steinbrueck's Social Democrats make late gains in the opinion polls, helped by his efforts to project a gentler, more human image to voters. But Merkel's conservatives remain well ahead.
Philipp Roesler, leader of the liberal Free Democrats who hope to renew their coalition with Merkel's conservatives after the September 22 election, told Spiegel Online: "A candidate for chancellor is forbidden to make such a gesture."
"Giving somebody the finger is not funny. A candidate for chancellor should set an example," tweeted his FDP colleague Joerg-Uwe Hahn.
Steinbrueck, 66, made light of the matter on Twitter, saying: "Plain speaking does not always require words".
(Reporting by Gareth Jones; editing by Andrew Roche)