FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2013 file picture German opposition leader Peer Steinbrueck speaks to the media in Berlin, Germany. The German opposition leader's comment that "two clowns" won Italy's election has led the Italian president to cancel a meeting with him. Peer Steinbrueck is Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger for the top job in Germany's September election. In discussing the Italian vote, he said Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 that he was "appalled to a certain point that two clowns won." That was an apparent reference to comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose anti-establishment 5 Star Movement performed strongly, and scandal-scarred former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right coalition did better than expected. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano is visiting Germany and was due to meet with Steinbrueck, but Steinbrueck spokesman Michael Donnermeyer said Napolitano called off the meeting because of the "clown" comments. (AP Photo/dpa, Hannibal Hanschke,File)

Berlin - Italian President Giorgio Napolitano cancelled 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 garnering a majority in parliament, although Grillo's anti-establishment 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 cancelled “because of Steinbrueck's remarks on Tuesday” and added that the SPD politician “understood Napolitano's domestic political reasons for cancelling”.

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 an SPD 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 slated often in the media.

But Steinbrueck did himself no favours 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”.

“Steinbrueck behaves like a bull in a china shop,” said Michael Meister, deputy leader of Merkel's conservatives in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament). He accused Steinbrueck of damaging Germany's reputation abroad with such comments. Some SPD politicians also criticised Steinbrueck for his utterance.

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 centre 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.

Merkel is more diplomatic than the acerbic Steinbrueck, a former German finance minister whose campaign for the election in September has got off to a poor start.

Merkel's parliamentary allies and even cabinet ministers had voiced concern about the possibility of a Berlusconi comeback before Sunday and Monday's elections but the chancellor kept any reservations to herself.

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. -Reuters