Media Analyst on German Election Race 'Merkel Is Planning a Campaign with Nationalistic Undertones'

Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union and the center-left Social Democratic Party have unveiled their first ads for September's election. But are they any good? In an interview, media expert Michael Spreng analyzes the campaigns for SPIEGEL ONLINE.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Current German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently met with former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Was it a clever campaign move?

Michael Spreng: It appears she thinks it's necessary. With the meeting, she was trying to send a message to the party base: I support the traditional Christian Democratic Union as well as the party's great politicians. Merkel's biggest problem in recent months was -- and she has actually had some success in this regard -- to lure voters away from the Social Democratic Party. But in doing so, she has overlooked part of her party base. By having her photo taken with Kohl, she is trying to make up for some of this neglect.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the move pay off?

Spreng: It may be helpful in terms of reaching out to part of the party base, but it could also backfire: The more swing voters there are, the more a photo-op like that can be counterproductive.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the 2002 election, you were an adviser to then-chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber, the former governor of Bavaria. Back then, you advised the candidate not to have his photo taken with Helmut Kohl.

Spreng: He also followed that advice. I gave the advice against the backdrop of the CDU campaign finance scandal,  which was still fresh in people's minds. People didn't have good memories of the final phase of the Kohl era.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have things changed today?

Spreng: It has a little. Kohl is better remembered today for reuniting Germany than for the final phase of his term as chancellor. Merkel is also trying to associate herself with the image of former CDU German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In September she is going to travel, as he once did, on the Rheingold Express train, a trip that will begin in his hometown of Rhöndorf. She's also planning a campaign with nationalistic undertones, featuring the colors of the German flag -- black, red and gold -- as well as themes of unity and German history. As I said though: I could also imagine that it could have a negative effect on swing voters -- for example those who could vote for either the CDU or the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, could also associate himself with party heavyweights like former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a bid to boost his campaign. Should he do that?

Spreng: For most people, Schröder stands for two things today: the unpopular "Agenda 2010" social welfare reforms and the Russian energy giant Gazprom. (Ed's note: Schröder heads up the advisory board of the Gazprom subsidiary currently building the Baltic Sea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. ) In that respect, I would strongly advise Steinmeier against having any photos taken with him. He may have been one of the SPD's best campaigners, but he is no longer a positive crowd-puller for the party.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The SPD has now presented its first election posters. In contrast to its aggressive campaign in the European elections in June, where the SPD ruthlessly attacked rival parties, the new posters are pretty tame. Is this the right strategy?

Spreng: It's a classic testimonial campaign of the sort that is often carried out during election races, whereby likeable-looking people communicate the party's main messages. However the new posters are very text-heavy, so they are not necessarily suitable for addressing motorists. Hence I would say that their impact will be limited. The pictures aren't terribly useful, but they don't harm the party either. They look nice, but they are not going to mobilize people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The SPD's chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier is only going to appear widely on posters as of the end of August. Is that normal?

Spreng: Merkel too will also only appear on posters during the final phase of the campaign. At that point, everything will come to a head in the shape of a duel between her and Steinmeier. The SPD is also following that approach.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The CDU has also presented its election posters. They have chosen to focus on portraits of their main ministers rather than on issues.

Spreng: These posters, too, will only have a limited effect. It's true that some popular politicians who are also stars of their party are included in the posters, like Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg or Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen. But in a bid to keep things balanced within their party, and so as not to give the SPD any ammunition to attack them, the CDU have included all their ministers in the posters, including poorly-performing and unpopular politicians like Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung and Research Minister Annette Schavan. That's more a hindrance than a help for their campaign.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It probably won't do much to mobilize voters either.

Spreng: Of course. The final posters during the last three weeks could turn out to be crucial. It's possible they will mobilize people. But the current posters only serve as a visual reminder that the CDU is not actually asleep.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Merkel is expected to try to avoid any hard clashes during the election campaign. Will she manage to scrape through with that strategy?

Spreng: This is definitely a problem. Her strategy is to avoid trying to polarize people. Instead, she is presenting herself as a leader who has the interests of the nation at heart and who focuses on concrete issues. It's no coincidence that her nickname within her party is "Mom."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's the downside to that strategy?

Spreng: It could be successful, but naturally it is not going to mobilize voters. It's already backfiring in that Merkel doesn't have any major party figure who can, if necessary, launch an attack and polarize opinion. If the CDU's general secretary, Ronald Pofalla, or its floor leader, Volker Kauder, tried doing that, the effect would probably be limited. Other people need to take on that role, but the CDU no longer has anyone capable of acting as an attack dog. They have either been kicked out or emasculated.

Interview conducted by Veit Medick.
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