Opinion How to Win an Election Through Boredom

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being criticized for running a boring election campaign. It may be part of a cunning plan to win by deterring opposition supporters from voting. The strategy could work -- but may end up damaging German democracy.

Playing nice: German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at an election campaign rally in Düsseldorf.
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Playing nice: German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at an election campaign rally in Düsseldorf.

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The SPD is complaining that Chancellor Angela Merkel is refusing to come out and fight the election campaign. She is spending too much time on red carpets, says her rival, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. As if she has the constitutional obligation to help her challenger unseat her. But Merkel's conservatives too want her to fight harder in this final stage of the campaign.

The accusation is wrong. Angela Merkel isn't avoiding the campaign, she is just making it look very unattractive. This is an important difference. The chancellor is staying calm, putting aside the fervent emotions, passion and energy one might usually expect to see in the last four weeks before an election. The fact that the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor is involuntarily helping her out -- or at least, seems unable to come up with a strategy to combat Merkel's -- is a gift to her.

Making the campaign dull stems from the calculation that it can pay off for politicians if as few people as possible bother to vote. It sounds cynical but it works, and this can be proven. It's an illusion that all political campaigners want a high turnout. What counts is who actually goes to vote.

The political parties split voters into two groups: those who are for them and those who are against. There is also the small group of undecided voters. You can try and win over these guys -- but it's not essential.

It's an easy formula: the scales will tip toward the party that manages to motivate its supporters to come out and vote for it. The ability of a politician to motivate his or her own people decides the election outcome -- not his or her ability to woo the supporters of the competition.

It works the other way round too. If you manage to keep more of your opponent's voters at home than your own, you take the lead. You could describe this as success through a demobilization of voters. It is not a particularly appetizing procedure but, if it works, it can secure an election win.

The strategy relies on the incumbent profiting more than his or her competitor from voter abstention because in times of political torpor the general public's desire for an alternative leader -- in this case, Steinmeier -- isn't so pronounced.

American reporter Joe Klein has written a clever book, Politics Lost, about presidential campaigns in the US, in which he describes how consultants and opinion pollsters have taken all the spontaneity out of politics. Klein talks about the campaign run by Senator Alan Cranston in 1986. It was so deliberately vicious and ruthless that a lot of voters turned away in disgust. The abstention damaged his opponent more than it did him. In the book, Klein says that one of Cranston's advisors came up with "the perverse realization that he could make the race so obnoxious that he would merely discourage people from voting." And Cranston did win -- his deliberately dirty campaign turned off voters who may have voted against him.

The citizens of Germany are currently experiencing a German variation on this. The chancellor isn't deterring voters with shock tactics, she is simply boring them all away from the polls instead.

There may be a price to pay for this. Up until now an overheated, over-emotional atmosphere in a democratic system has been considered dangerous. After all, that was the lesson of the Weimar Republic, where political passions spiralled out of control. Now it seems conceivable that the deliberate cooling down could also damage German democracy.

Public support for democracy is a sensitive resource. If you convince people that they can follow an election on TV without ever having to take part, it will be difficult to win them back. It always looks as though the German people are well represented in parliament. But this is an illusion because those who never voted are not included. The real number of Germans who feel represented in government grows smaller all the time -- and this is the chancellor's real sin.

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