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.
Determined to Hide Her Otherness
Merkel's normalcy was in fact her strength. In late January, she was standing in the lobby of the Federal Chancellery to perform the annual ritual of receiving the royal carnival couples from all across Germany. Standing in front of her on the outside staircase were more than 100 carnival revelers, the men wearing baggy trousers and fur-lined pointed hats, and the women dressed in brightly colored silk and brocade dresses.
Merkel, a Protestant, has never demonstrated a particularly affinity for the Catholic ritual of organized gaiety, but on that afternoon, she behaved as if there were nothing more important than the well-being of Germany's royal carnival couple.
With the patience of an angel, she accepted the carnival emblems, while a band belted out rollicking tunes. Merkel pursed her lips and whistled along, and suddenly she was no longer Germany's chancellor, but a merry fan of the German repertoire of drinking songs.
Merkel hardly spends more effort on anything than painting a picture of herself as the epitome of normalcy. According to her campaign website, her husband complains when she bakes a cake with not enough streusel on top. This is the image the chancellor intends to portray in the campaign.
When she was first elected in 2005, Merkel seemed uncomfortable with her newfound power, like a novice driver sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. She was surprised when a remark she had made set an entire bevy of officials into motion. And she also had to get used to the fact that remarks made by her spokesmen, Ulrich Wilhelm and Thomas Steg, were printed in the paper as her personal views.
Unswayed by Emotions
To complicate matters, she was a freak of German politics, a woman from Templin in the northeastern region of Uckermark who had made it to the very top. Merkel seemed obsessed with the fear that her chancellorship would be seen as a big misunderstanding, which is why she was determined to hide her otherness.
Those days are now gone. On a Sunday in May, she and a small group of people attended a screening of her favorite film at a small theater in the western part of Berlin, an event hosted by the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Merkel had chosen "The Legend of Paul and Paula," a tragic East German love story about an East German official who frees himself from his conventional life to run off with a spirited supermarket cashier.
On that evening, the small theater was filled with the who's who of the former East German film world: Hilmar Thate, whom Merkel worships because of his furious performance in Richard III at the Deutsches Theater, actress and director Katharina Thalbach and, of course, Winfried Glatzeder and Angelica Domröse, the principal performers in "Paul and Paula."
Merkel's strength has been that she hasn't allowed herself to be swayed by emotions. In that respect, she has been consistently more disciplined than the men in her party. But on the evening of the film screening, she indulged in a few hours of letting her guard down. A book had just made headlines a few days earlier by accusing Merkel of having been more closely aligned with the East German system than was previously known.
As soon as Merkel walked into the theater, the other attendees began whispering and cursing about the ignorance of the two West German journalists. Merkel was only too eager to bask in the warm glow of solidarity. Then the film began. When the lights went on abruptly after an hour-and-a-half, she returned a package of tissues to her media adviser, Eva Christiansen. It wasn't quite clear what had moved her more: the film's sad ending or her warm reception in the theater.
Dogged and Uninspired
But there is also another side to Merkel. In the eighth year of her chancellorship, she can seem testy, almost to the point of being impolite. On Feb. 13, she attended an annual CDU celebration of the party's political version of Ash Wednesday in Demmin, a town in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It's an event that Merkel initiated 17 years ago, so that the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, wouldn't be the only party making headlines on that day.
Now, Merkel can't get out of going to the event. There were more than 1,000 CDU supporters in the multi-purpose event center, drinking Lübzer Pils beer and eating smoked pork chops. They expected a little entertainment, which was understandable, since not much else is going on at this time of the year in the lowlands of Western Pomerania. The chancellor arrived a little late, but she was still greeted with friendly applause. When Merkel walked into the room Werner Kuhn, a local member of the European Parliament who had already delivered his share of the entertainment, said: "Dear Angela, it's time for me to thank you without being asked."
Merkel thanked him for the compliments, stepped up to the microphone and gave a dogged, uninspired speech filled with sentences that lingered as heavily in the air as cigar smoke. The whole thing was over after 34 minutes, leaving enough time for a brief, imperial wave before Merkel disappeared through a rear entrance.
Merkel can explain her policies with great patience, as she demonstrated during an appearance at a high school in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood in May. As long as compliant high-school students ask intelligent questions about the euro crisis, Merkel remains friendly, slipping into the role of the country's teacher-in-chief. But the minute questions become more critical, a sharpness creeps into her responses, a sign that the chancellor isn't pleased with such insubordination.
Like any longstanding leader, Merkel is losing interest in carefully justifying her decisions. In the CDU steering committee, once a discussion forum for all key policy matters, she now merely announces her decisions. A man who has been a member of the committee for many years says that it has deteriorated into a body in which policy is announced, not discussed. Merkel talks over truly important matters with her staff at the Chancellery.
From the CDU to a Cemetery
For many years, the CDU was a threatening place for Merkel, filled with people like Roland Koch, Christian Wulff and Friedrich Merz, each of whom secretly felt that he would make a better chancellor. Now Merkel's deputies in the party are names that only political reporters need to know.
And, as leader of the CDU, she now wields more power than even former Chancellor Helmut Kohl did in his best years. This is partly explained by the impudence with which she treats the party. For a long time, her survival hinged on finding allies within the CDU, but now she has transformed the party into a cemetery.
Of course, most of her rivals were responsible for their own downfall, but Merkel also has no particular interest in seeing a leadership reserve develop alongside her. This explains why many in the CDU fear that the party will plunge into a deep crisis after her chancellorship ends. This doesn't worry Merkel. "A successor," she said recently, "can always be found."
Now that Merkel no longer feels threatened, she has learned to relish the power game. Instead of worrying about her survival, she can turn her attention to winning, although she only manages to find worthy opponents abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin is her new Roland Koch.
In June, Merkel flew to St. Petersburg, partly to join Putin at the opening of an exhibition of art treasures that Soviet soldiers carried off from Germany at the end of World War II. But then Putin changed his mind, after learning that Merkel, in her opening remarks, intended to argue the German position, which is that the treasures should be returned to Germany. He was outraged and had the opening remarks removed from the agenda.
It turned into a minor standoff. Merkel said that she wouldn't set foot in the Hermitage Museum unless she was allowed to speak. Putin remained unbending at first, but then he decided that it wasn't worth risking a scandal. At the end of the day, the two leaders stood on a broad staircase in the St. Petersburg museum. Merkel stated the German government's position, and Putin gave a speech that amounted to chiding the Germans for making such a fuss.
Demanding Sacrifices Outside of Germany
Merkel has no illusions about Putin. She is familiar with his limited regard for human rights. He once told her why tough laws against homosexuals are necessary, saying that misguided tolerance on the issue had ruined entire cultures in the past. This is truly the way Putin thinks.
But Merkel also has her fun with the Russian president, whose overt displays of masculinity she finds amusing. Merkel has turned her Berlin environment into a reduced testosterone zone. The people who work for her are ambitious and hardworking, but they're also a little boring. Putin, on the other hand, is a man who, even at an advanced age, is constantly ripping off his shirt and stomping through the Russian outback. On the flight back from St. Petersburg, Merkel seemed chatty and relaxed. She said that an encounter with Putin is a constant test of strength, and that those who don't stick up for themselves end up shrinking. On that day, Merkel was proud of herself for not turning into a dwarf.
There are two Merkels. There is the German Merkel, who is always composed and feels even the tiniest pains of her fellow citizens. And then there is the Merkel who travels the world and sees how rapidly the globe is changing. In this mode, Merkel can only shake her head over such domestic debates as the gender quota and the question of whether Brussels has the right to ban small olive oil dispensers from restaurant tables.
Merkel has become an oddly contradictory chancellor. She admires China, which has transformed itself from an agricultural country into the world's largest exporting nation in the space of two decades. She praises countries like Indonesia, which accomplished the feat of slashing its massive debt. When she flew to Jakarta in the summer of 2012, she came armed with a slew of numbers to demonstrate the country's recovery, and in her narrative, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono becomes a role model for all of Europe.
A popular criticism of Merkel is that she has lost the zeal for reform that once motivated her as an opposition politician. But she can still deliver fiery speeches in which she warns against lethargy and tired complacency.
The Late Phase
Yet her warnings are not directed primarily at the Germans but at Germany's neighbors in Europe. In this way, she pulls off the feat of preserving her inner reformer without asking too much of her voters. Her message is essentially that Germans have done enough and now it's up to the others to follow suit. As such, it made sense that she didn't end her televised debate with Steinbrück with an appeal but merely said: "And now I'd like to wish you a nice evening." It's the sort of thing a corporate executive says to his employees after a long workday.
The big question is what Merkel plans to do in her third term. Some chancellors used their late phase to make unpopular decisions. Helmut Schmidt helped pave the way for the stationing of mobile mid-range US missiles in Europe as an answer to the Soviet Union. Helmut Kohl brought in the euro. And Gerhard Schröder pushed through his Agenda 2010 package of welfare reforms and spending cuts. During this campaign, Merkel has joked about the SPD's present-day discomfort with the reforms Schröder introduced. In Zingst, she said: "It's come to the point where I have to praise my predecessor." But the real point is that Merkel has never had the courage to risk her popularity for an important project.
Her talent has consisted of managing problems that were imposed on her by someone else. She reacts instead of acting, although it has worked out relatively well for her. She prevented the financial crisis from taking down the German economy, and can also be credited with preventing the collapse of the euro in the last two years.
What she lacks are ideas of her own. All of the major policy decisions in the Merkel era were launched by cabinet ministers. Raising the retirement age to 67 was former Labor Minister Franz Müntefering's achievement, and without former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany would still have compulsory military service today.
Does Merkel think about her place in history? Of course, there is always something awkward about national leaders pondering their legacy while still in office, and members of Merkel's staff insist that she never thinks about how historians will appraise her one day. On the other hand, significant achievements always come with a pinch of megalomania.
Merkel knows that she will also be judged by whether she finds the strength to provide Europe with a new foundation. And based on her sparse remarks and the words of her advisors, the outline of a plan does become discernible. She only declines to offer details of such a plan because she fears that it would set her party on fire.
Merkel has never moved within the mainstream of her party when it comes to European policy. From the very beginning, she took a far more critical view of Brussels than her fellow conservatives from the western part of Germany, and since she has been chancellor, she has had to wrestle with problems left behind by predecessors with a more euphoric view of Europe, like Helmut Kohl.
Of course, when she gets on her soapbox Merkel also says that she wants to see "more Europe," but it's important to read between the lines to understand what she means.
For Merkel, more Europe doesn't mean strengthening the European Commission, which she sees as a body that has largely disconnected itself from the world and the wishes of the people. She wants to prevent the Commission president from being directly elected, even though exactly that goal is spelled out in a CDU party conference resolution. Her reasoning is that a direct election would confer even more power on the Commission president.
What Merkel wants, at least according to her advisors, is a Europe made up of influential nation states. She is apparently considering introducing an amendment to the EU treaties after the German election that would strengthen the council of heads of state and government, while simultaneously limiting the power of the Commission.
Can she succeed? Merkel would certainly find allies within Europe for such a plan. British Prime Minister David Cameron has long believed that Brussels has too much influence, and French President François Hollande apparently feels the same way. The only question is how the CDU would react to such an effort. So far, Merkel's policy of quiet nationalization has encountered little resistance, which is partly attributable to her placid disposition. Merkel doesn't awaken fears that German jackboots could soon be marching through Europe once again.
There are certainly reasons to restructure the balance of power in Europe. Merkel believes that the most important task of her term in office is to make Europe more competitive, and she is determined not to allow the continent to become a museum of past successes. But she doesn't believe that the Commission has the strength and the democratic authority to force countries like Spain and Greece to implement comprehensive reforms. In her view, this can only be achieved in a joint effort by European countries.
However, this would, at the very least, amount to the end of a policy of increasing integration. It would contradict what the CDU has stood for in the last 60 years. It would also alienate Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, both of whom want a stronger EU and not a Europe of nation states.
The campaign would be a good opportunity to discuss Merkel's ideas. If she did capture a majority, she would then have a mandate to question the certainties her party has carried around for decades. The election would be a plebiscite over what happens next in Europe.
Merkel doesn't want that. She has become bolder in recent years. She has gone to Brussels and asserted her policies, which have triggered protests throughout Europe and given rise to riots and ugly portrayals. But none of that has led Merkel astray. The voter remains her greatest trauma. She once ran a campaign, in 2005, in which she honestly expressed her views. And it almost cost her the election -- or at least she believes it did.
If Merkel's chancellorship fails in the end, it will fail because of her fear of voters. Every great chancellor decided at some point to reach decisions that were initially unpopular. Merkel hasn't done that yet.
In mid-August, Merkel was standing on the market square in Oschatz, in Saxony, where she said that the CDU is a demanding party because it asks citizens to take personal responsibility. For a brief moment, it seemed as if Merkel had finally broached a big issue and that she had the courage to take on a difficult challenge, after all. But it soon became clear that she was merely talking about the "veggie day" proposal from the Greens. She added: "You can decide for yourself when to eat meat."