Letter from Berlin Parties Shun Truth in German Election Race

Election campaigning in Germany has finally begun in earnest, with just over a month to go before the Sept. 27 vote. So why are the parties being so secretive about their intentions?


The seats are all taken long before the event begins. For anyone who hasn't managed to find a seat on the crowded steps, it's standing room only. Everyone is waiting, with great anticipation, for the moment when the exciting phase of the campaign begins: the kickoff.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, back from her vacation in Italy's South Tyrol region, is sitting on a chair at the front of the room. Her detractors had already voiced the suspicion that Merkel would extend her vacation until Sept. 27, the day of the German general election, because she seemed to have no interest in campaigning. But they were wrong.

In fact, the chancellor seems rejuvenated. While her opponent, Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, spent the last three weeks on a campaign tour through Germany, Merkel enjoyed her vacation in the Puster Valley, in the shadow of Alpine peaks. She could look on as the SPD shot itself in the foot in her absence, slipping to a miserable 22 percent rating in the polls -- without Merkel having to lift a finger.

In the Dark

It is last Thursday in Berlin, and in her first public appearance after the summer break, Merkel will answer questions posed by two journalists in a one-hour session. The interviewers are eager to finally elicit a reaction from her, something concrete, perhaps criticism of Steinmeier, anything that sounds like the words of someone running for reelection. But Merkel simply avoids making any statements resembling an agenda.

It is a fitting start to a campaign with one overriding feature so far: a proclivity toward secrecy. Ironically, now that the phase of the campaign has arrived in which the parties are expected to lay out their agendas in open debate, they have tended to keep citizens in the dark about their true intentions.

The campaign phase ought to be a period of the greatest possible transparency, a period in which citizens have the opportunity to form an opinion about the candidates that is based on honest information. But this is made difficult by the fact that all the parties are entering the crucial phase of the campaign with secrets large and small.

Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats are taking the concept of secrecy to an extreme, declining to reveal what they plan to do after the election. Merkel has concocted an election campaign that is in fact a non-campaign. When asked about the grand coalition government, which comprises the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, Merkel says that she is leading it "with great conviction." And her challenger Steinmeier's so-called "Plan for Germany?" She is "more or less in agreement" with it, Merkel says noncommittally. Even the opposition cannot escape Merkel's embraces. They have behaved responsibly in reaction to the financial crisis, she says.

But on this evening, she ignores questions that address the content of her platform. This approach makes it difficult for Steinmeier to pin her down. His secret, in turn, consists of how exactly he plans to become chancellor. Since Guido Westerwelle, the chairman of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, ruled out joining the SPD and the Green Party in a coalition (nicknamed the "traffic light" coalition after the three parties' official colors), Steinmeier's chances of winning the chancellorship have declined sharply. If Westerwelle is serious about his intentions, Steinmeier will share the fate of former SPD chancellor candidate Johannes Rau, who entered the 1987 race without a realistic chance of winning.

Just how serious Westerwelle is about his intentions is one of the key questions of this campaign, which, despite supposedly unambiguous polling results, promises to be an exciting one. Never before have there been this many possible coalition combinations. In addition to a "black-yellow" alliance of the CDU and its traditional preferred coalition partner, the FDP (whose official colors are black and yellow respectively), or a continuation of the current grand coalition, other possibilities are a so-called "Jamaica" coalition (a coalition of the CDU, FDP and the Green Party, whose party colors correspond to those of the Jamaican flag) and -- if Westerwelle so chooses -- the "traffic light" coalition of the FDP, SPD and Green Party.

Negative Experiences

Much depends on whether Steinmeier and the SPD manage to draw Merkel and the Christian Democrats out of their secretive mode and into a hard-hitting debate on the issues. But the prospects of that happening seem slim at the moment.

Merkel refuses to specify how exactly she plans to use her power, if elected. In taking this approach, she is applying a lesson learned from the botched 2005 campaign, when she made herself unpopular by calling for an increase in the rate of value-added tax. Her experiences with openness in election campaigns have not been positive.

Four years later, Merkel is no longer willing to stake out any positions. Officials at CDU headquarters in Berlin are saying the campaign is "true to Merkel." Besides, says one of her advisers, there is hardly anything to which she can commit herself. Important decisions, such as the economic stimulus programs and measures to rescue ailing banks, have already been approved. All that remains, says the adviser, who preferred not to be named, is to implement these decisions conscientiously.

The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are certainly being very conscientious in their approach of avoiding a clear agenda. In past years, the planning committee of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group has consistently developed strategies ahead of campaigns. In these plans, it laid down which programs the party wanted to implement with which potential coalitions. The parliamentary group wanted to be prepared.

This year, however, CDU/CSU floor leader Volker Kauder decided that nothing would be put down on paper. In the absence of a tangible document that could fall into the hands of the press, there would be no need to come up with a plan on how to respond. A document would only make it possible to tie the CDU to its positions, thereby exposing it to criticism. For the same reason, there will be no 100-day program for the period following the election.

A Campaign without Polemics

Just what a non-campaign looks like was in plain evidence at an event last Thursday in Neustadt am Rübenberge, a town in northern Germany. The supporters of David McAllister, a half-Scottish German politician who is the CDU's chairman in the state of Lower Saxony, know him as a spirited conservative who is always good for a spiteful remark about the SPD. But the McAllister his supporters experienced on the town square on Thursday had clearly heeded Merkel's instructions to toe the party line.

"Germans don't like it when political rivals are portrayed as sharks," said McAllister, who hasn't shied away from referring to his rivals as predatory fish in the past. "For that reason, we will conduct a campaign without polemics and without any defamation." He sounded like someone speaking at an educational seminar on conflict resolution.

Steinmeier has no choice but to treat Merkel's tendency to play her cards close to the chest as his only real opportunity. In fact, the Social Democrats are now doing their best to ridicule the conservatives' approach to campaigning. In particular, the SPD has pounced on Merkel's announcement of her plan to travel through Germany during the campaign on a special train dubbed the "Rheingold." "Traveling on a nostalgia train is not the right symbol for the future," says Steinmeier. By his standards, this is a razor-sharp attack.

All pollsters confirm that, according to their polling, the CDU/CSU has largely exhausted its potential to gain additional votes. To win the election, therefore, it will have to ensure that its supporters remain enthusiastic until the day of the election.

In contrast, the SPD could still considerably improve its prospects, at least in theory. Millions of voters have turned away from the Social Democrats, but they have not turned to another party instead. Steinmeier's task is to use every tool in his arsenal to motivate these disenchanted supporters to change their minds and turn out for the vote after all.


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