BERLIN — Italian President Giorgio Napolitano canceled a dinner with the German opposition's chancellor candidate on Wednesday after he described Italian former premier Silvio Berlusconi and comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo as "clowns."
Peer Steinbrueck, a Social Democrat who will take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's next national election in September, has a reputation for gaffes, and his remark created the first diplomatic incident of his accident-prone campaign.
Steinbrueck said on Tuesday he was "appalled that two clowns have won" Italy's Feb. 24-25 election. The vote was actually inconclusive with no party gaining a majority, although Grillo's protest party surged dramatically.
Napolitano, an 87-year-old former communist with no natural affinity for Berlusconi or Grillo, now faces the difficult task of trying to appoint a coalition government.
Italian media said he had expressed concern about "populism" after the election result in a private meeting during his visit to Germany, but these comments could not be confirmed.
As head of state, he may have felt duty-bound to defend the dignity of Italy's political institutions.
The German candidate's spokesman said Napolitano canceled "because of Steinbrueck's remarks on Tuesday" and added that the Social Democrat politician "understood Napolitano's domestic political reasons for canceling."
Napolitano's spokesman was unavailable for comment.
Napolitano and Steinbrueck had been scheduled to meet over dinner at a Berlin hotel. Napolitano, who visited Munich on Tuesday and Wednesday, was due to meet Merkel in the German capital on Thursday.
Steinbrueck made it absolutely clear in his comments to a party rally in Potsdam he was referring to Grillo and Berlusconi, calling the latter "clearly a clown with a testosterone boost."
"My impression is that two populists won," he said.
Berlusconi, a scandal-ridden billionaire media mogul, is very unpopular in Germany and is assailed often in the media.
But Steinbrueck did himself no favors with his frank talk.
German politicians are expected to strike a serious tone and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of European partners. On Twitter, some commentators dismissed the acerbic Steinbrueck as the "real clown."
Italy's elections, which threaten to tip the euro zone back into crisis, showed a big swell in support for Grillo's 5-Star Movement and a surprisingly strong result for Berlusconi. He had been expected to lose heavily to the center left, which won the lower house but not the senate.
Both Grillo and Berlusconi campaigned against the austerity measures implemented by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti at the urging of Germany's conservative chancellor Merkel.
Grillo, in his popular blog, laid into Merkel for imposing German-style fiscal austerity on Italy. Berlusconi has made more personal attacks on Merkel, whom he blames for his fall from power in 2011 because of her hesitancy on bailouts.
Berlusconi, who has been sentenced for tax fraud and is on trial accused of having sex with an under-aged prostitute, is reported to have made rude remarks about Merkel's appearance in a phone call wiretapped by investigators, though he denies this.
Steinbrueck made waves with undiplomatic statements when he served as finance minister under Merkel between 2005 and 2009, for example referring to the Swiss as Indians running scared from the cavalry during a crackdown he led on tax havens.