Dodging the Issues Merkel Campaign Driven by Fear of Voters
The German campaign is in full swing, but Chancellor Angela Merkel is carefully avoiding controversial issues. Her stump message focuses entirely on her person and gives short shrift to her plans for Germany's future. Her only platform is her popularity.
It's a terribly hot July day, the sun blazing. But scorching or not, the campaign must go on. Today's event is taking place in Zingst, a Baltic Sea resort on the Darss Peninsula, where about 1,000 people have gathered at an outdoor stage.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is about to give a speech, but first on the agenda is a bit of small talk. Merkel's party, the CDU, has hired Jan Stecker, the tanned host of a car show on cable TV, to serve as MC. And Stecker wants to know which opera Merkel intends to see at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth this year.
Merkel hesitates for a moment as she gazes at the crowd. She sees men in tank tops and sandals, dripping ice cream cones and people holding up their mobile phones to snap her picture. What she doesn't see are people with an appreciation for the mystical tones of Richard Wagner's music.
Merkel, determined not to seem elitist, says: "I'm not sure if that's of any interest here." Realizing that this also sounds a little too pretentious, she adds that "The Flying Dutchman" is on this year's program, which seems a good fit for the event here in Zingst, with the waves rolling up onto the beach and the wind blowing in from the sea.
With just days to go before the election, downplaying problems and protecting the electorate are tops on Merkel's priority list. Indeed, though Sept. 22 is just around the corner, there is still surprisingly little to indicate that Germany will hold a national election on that day. And that is primarily due to the chancellor. Never before has a German chancellor managed to sedate the country's electorate ahead of a vote as effectively as Merkel has done. Instead of talking with citizens about where she wants to take the country, Merkel treats voters like children who should simply trust that mother knows best.
The word that springs to mind to describe Merkel this election season is "smugness." She is a chancellor that seems to believe that explanations are no longer necessary. Normally, campaigns are times when candidates and parties highlight their respective positions more clearly than usual. But Merkel refuses to engage in this exercise. Merkel doesn't want people to cast their ballots based on political positions. She wants it to be about her as an individual. That, she believes, should be sufficient for the Germans.
From Game to Debacle
In her years in office, Merkel has become more self-confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance. In the NSA scandal, she sent out chancellery head Ronald Pofalla to repeat, time and again, that all the accusations had been cleared up. It was so audacious that, in the end, it was even too much for Horst Seehofer, chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and a nominal Merkel ally. "In my view," he said, "nothing has been sufficiently cleared up yet."
No other German chancellor has been as powerful in the eighth year of her chancellorship as Merkel. Her approval ratings are stable, and she no longer has any rivals in her party, the Christian Democratic Union. She has a golden opportunity to obtain a strong mandate for unpopular yet necessary decisions.
Merkel, to be sure, is certainly capable of making tough decisions. She expelled former Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen from her cabinet, and she has also forced Germany's partners in Europe to adhere to her course. Merkel has become a woman who demands sacrifices from others -- but the current campaign has shown that she demands much less of the Germans. Merkel has no intention of burdening German voters.
This game turned into a debacle last Friday. At the G-20 summit in Moscow, Merkel seemed anxious to avoid giving the impression that she supported military action against Syria, knowing as she does that the majority of Germans are opposed. But US President Barack Obama managed to win over the other Europeans at the summit, leaving Merkel appearing as if she were abandoning her closest allies due to a re-election campaign. Berlin later joined the US resolution, but the damage had been done.
On the stump, Merkel can seem like a campaign machine, perhaps the product of it being her fourth general election run as head of the CDU. When she approaches the stage during appearances, no matter where she is, the disco background music seems much too animated for a chancellor who has to hold the handrail to steady herself as she climbs the steps.
Once Merkel is on the stage, she often squints at the crowd for a moment, the gaze of the professional campaigner, surveying attendance and trying to locate potential leftist troublemakers. Then she raises her hand in greeting, a gesture that, in its imperial simplicity, is reminiscent of the British queen.
What happens next is not campaigning but the refusal to campaign. Merkel chats about the weather and the beauty of the German landscape. In 2005, when she first set out to become chancellor, Merkel told voters that all kinds of hardships were coming their way, the biggest being a 2 percent increase in the value-added tax. In the 2009 national election, at least she had the ambition of ending her alliance with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in favor of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
But in this campaign, Merkel has only one message: Merkel. When she stepped up to the microphone after chatting with the MC at the July appearance in Zingst, she described a country that is doing well and where not much needs to change, particularly not at the top. "Germany is in pretty good shape," she said. "A humane society values older people," she added, before finally saying: "I'd like to say hello to the many children here today."
Recently, Merkel has frequently been accused of stifling political communication and being incapable of entering into a discourse with the country. But she has found a completely different way of speaking with citizens.
Her campaign isn't about arguments. She doesn't want to discuss the minimum wage or the future of the European Union. Instead, her message is one of reassurance: If you vote for me, you'll get four more good years. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the giant poster that's been hanging near Berlin's main train station for the last few days. It depicts Merkel's hands forming her trademark gesture, the so-called "Merkel diamond," along with the slogan: "Germany's future is in good hands."
So far, it had seemed as if Merkel's strategy were working. As long as the country doesn't discuss issues, the campaign will revolve around personalities, and Merkel is far more popular than her SPD opponent Peer Steinbrück. But in the TV debate between Merkel and Steinbrück, Germans were introduced to a challenger who knows how to frame an argument and doesn't always stumble from one blunder to the next.
Merkel and her party are now becoming increasingly nervous. Undecided voters, in particular, found Steinbrück convincing in the TV debate. Because more than 20 percent of Germans still don't know whom they plan to vote for on Sept. 22, it is a group that will end up shaping the election outcome.
Merkel knows how precarious the situation might be. In January, David McAllister conducted a campaign very similar to Merkel's when he was running for reelection as governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony. The CDU politician didn't devote much time to the issues, with campaign posters depicting a smiling McAllister next to the words: "The Right Choice." But in the end, Stephan Weil, the pale, gray-haired SPD candidate, eked out a victory in the final spurt.
Merkel, for her part, has taken care of all potentially contentious issues -- those that German parties have traditionally fought over -- such as the minimum wage, nuclear energy and rent prices. It is a strategy that seemed to be harming the SPD more than anything, because its supporters tend to stay away from the polls in an unemotional campaign.
But what if conservatives are the ones put to sleep by the lackluster campaign? Or if they defect to the protest party Alternative for Germany (AfD)? Many conservatives still feel confident due to Merkel's strong numbers in the polls. But recent years have shown that the CDU and the Bavarian CSU often do far worse on election day than pollsters say they will.
For years, Merkel has been accused in editorials and essays of putting the country to sleep with her fainthearted policy of small steps. Such comments are partly a reflection of the frustration of journalists who, after years of reporting on macho politicians such as Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, were faced with a chancellor whose policies were about as exciting as a Volkswagen Passat. In the media business, this isn't good for circulation or profits.
It needn't have worried Merkel as long as voters were satisfied with her performance. While Germany was being kept in suspense by the financial crisis and the staggering euro, it didn't need a chancellor who could satisfy the media's yearning for a titillating story. Life was already agitating enough.