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.
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.
'Merkel Should Show Us What She's Got'
One of his fellow SPD members demonstrated how this is done, at a campaign appearance last Tuesday in Wülfrath in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Andrea Nahles, a member of parliament for the SPD, was sitting on a red sofa at the Haus-Luise-von-der-Heyden nursing home, seemingly prepared for a relaxed chat with her audience.
But Nahles wasn't interesting in chatting. "We want this to be a real, honest-to-goodness campaign," she said energetically. "Someone like Angela Merkel, who wants to remain in power, should show us what she's got. But she isn't doing that." Her audience of retirees, young people doing community service and a few local SPD members, seated at 30 coffee tables, pushed their water glasses from side to side. There was little sense of outrage in the room.
But then Nahles shifted into a higher gear. She painted nightmare scenarios of a Germany run by Merkel and Westerwelle. "We need €96 billion ($137 billion) a year for education," she said. "In the midst of a crisis, the FDP is promising €80 billion in tax cuts. That money will be coming out of the budgets for education and social services." Of course, Nahles and other SPD politicians are conveniently ignoring the fact that Merkel has not been some neo-liberal bogeyman in the last four years, but has actually behaved more like a Social Democrat than the Social Democrats themselves.
Another element of this secretive campaign is that some parties are completely ruling out potential post-election coalitions, even though they cannot be fully written off. While FDP leader Guido Westerwelle claims that he is discounting a "traffic-light" coalition after the election, the CDU/CSU and the Greens have an interest in making sure that no one talks about the possibility of their entering into a coalition together.
Westerwelle is justifiably concerned that many of his potential supporters could end up voting for the CDU/CSU if they believe it might be possible that the FDP could join forces with the SPD in the end, making Steinmeier chancellor after all.
This explains why the FDP leader is now doing everything possible to convince his supporters that there is absolutely no chance of a traffic-light coalition materializing after the election. In the normal world, Westerwelle would not be able to go back on such statements. But different rules apply in the world of politics, which is why it comes as no surprise that there is one sentence the FDP chairman simply refuses to utter in interviews, namely "I am categorically ruling out a traffic-light coalition." Instead, he says: "I consider a traffic-light coalition to be ruled out." The distinction between the two sentences boils down to semantics, but in the world of politics, such slight variations can mean a world of difference. For Steinmeier, it could spell the difference between being chancellor and not being chancellor.
These intricacies have prompted the SPD to carefully examine everything Westerwelle says these days. Most SPD leaders are convinced that the FDP chair will be prepared to enter into a traffic-light coalition in the end. To prove their point, they cite a remark Westerwelle made some time ago, when he said that he would not use "ink or blood" to sign his opposition to a traffic-light coalition. Even Merkel is by no means certain that Westerwelle, with whom she is on good terms, won't help the SPD secure the chancellorship, after all.
While the traffic-light coalition is at least a subject of conversation, the black-green option remains cloaked in a veil of secrecy. For instance, when Green Party Chair Claudia Roth is asked for her opinion on the conservatives, she raises her eyebrows and berates the CDU and CSU as sinister characters of the nuclear age. Conversely, CSU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla becomes indignant when asked about the Greens, insisting that the two parties have absolutely nothing in common.
In reality, the leaders of the CDU/CSU and the Greens have long been considering how to go about building a coalition. Their efforts are spurred in part by opinion polls. For weeks, the Greens have been polling neck-and-neck with the FDP, with some pollsters even putting the Greens just one percentage point behind the FDP. In the 2009 European elections, the Greens already managed to come in third place among German voters. It is not out of the question that, if a coalition between Merkel and Westerwelle fails to materialize, the CDU and the Greens could garner enough votes to form a winning alliance on the evening of election day.
This would not necessarily be a disappointing outcome for the Green Party's two leading candidates, Jürgen Trittin and Renate Künast. Of course, Tritten and Künast would prefer to govern with the SPD, as they did from 1998 to 2005, but an alliance with the CDU/CSU would not be impossible. It would be the Greens' only chance of securing seats in the cabinet once again.
However, the Green Party's voters are not as flexible as the party leadership. For many, the CDU/CSU is still their political archenemy. For Trittin and Künast, this means that although they can dream of a black-green coalition, talking about it is absolutely forbidden. Any such plan will have to remain their secret for now, if they don't want to risk losing much of their left-leaning base shortly before the election.
The CDU has a similar problem. Politicians like parliamentary manager Norbert Röttgen and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have long felt that the CDU/CSU should not rely solely on the FDP as a potential coalition partner. Another benefit of an alliance with the Greens is that it would allow the CDU to finally shed its image as a stuffy provincial party.
But Röttgen and Schäuble also know that their party needs the traditionalists for election victory, and they tend to cling to their image of the Greens as pot-smoking organic gardeners. For this reason, one of Merkel's advisers sums up his approach to handling the Greens in two sentences: "First we scold them as naughty children. Then we form a coalition."
That is one of the key statements of this secretive election race. And the fact that the person who uttered these two sentences chooses to remain anonymous is perfectly consistent with the general tenor of the campaign.
PETRA BORNHÖFT, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, KERSTIN KULLMANN, ROLAND NELLES, RALF NEUKIRCH, RENÉ PFISTER