The Battle of the Egos In German Election Campaign, Hubris Trumps Real Issues

When it comes to their election campaigns, Angela Merkel and her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier agree on one thing: It's the bankers who are the bad guys. Each of them claims to have the solution to the crisis. But their hubristic stump speeches reveal more about the candidates' over-inflated egos than concrete issues.

The Hungarian border guard who famously opened the Iron Curtain in the summer of 1989 clearly also has the secret to fighting the current financial crisis. Why else should Angela Merkel speak in such great detail about him in her election campaign speeches, right at the start of each appearance?

The German chancellor does a wonderful job of recounting this captivating tale. There the guard stands at the border between Hungary and Austria. Suddenly, a group of East Germans runs up to him. He phones his superior, but since he can't get him on the line, he decides right on the spot to open up the border.

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Then he goes home and, as Merkel relates in a particularly moving way, his child asks: "Daddy, what's going to happen to you now?" And the border guard doesn't know, and of course that worries him, because it's no small thing to open the Iron Curtain. But fortunately, because of Gorbachev, nothing happens to the plucky Hungarian border guard.

After telling this touching story, Merkel quickly moves on to the financial crisis. It's not immediately clear what the connection is here, but like every good storyteller, she saves the punch line for the end.

It's election time, democracy's wildest and most intense hour, and people are talking about the supposed "return of politics" because governments are now urgently needed as crisis managers. That makes for an interesting mix -- everyone would like to know what magic formulas the different candidates are offering in the run-up to Germany's national elections on Sept. 27. The country faces daunting challenges, such as the question of how to prevent Germany's economy from shrinking by 6 percent or how to build new, robust financial markets. But what role is this playing in the election campaign?

Over the course of last week, the week leading up to key state elections, both candidates for chancellor -- incumbent Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats, who is also the country's foreign minister in Merkel's right-left grand coalition government -- made appearances at diverse venues, including in Unna, Essen, Bonn and Saarbrücken. What kind of speeches did they make? How did they address the issue of the crisis? SPIEGEL accompanied the two candidates on the campaign trail.

Throwback to the Old Days

Monday, 6:30 p.m., Steinmeier arrives in Unna to plug his campaign at the Kastanienhain Garden Association, one of hundreds of community garden associations across the land where Germans transform small garden allotments into sanctuaries of bucolic bliss. A Dixieland band plays and the "Frohsinn" ("Cheerfulness") male choir belts out traditional tunes like "O Schätzchen, Schätzchen" ("Oh Darling, Darling"). Kitschy garden gnomes hold SPD flags and the allotment tenants proudly show off the results of tireless trimming, mowing and raking. Naturally the whole thing is accompanied by copious amounts of beer and sausages. It is a world from a time before the Internet and the financial crisis -- a throwback to the old days.

Steinmeier steps out of his official car and immediately gives someone a hug. He has become the man with the big warm fuzzies, someone who wants to give everyone bear hugs. Before he launches into his speech, Steinmeier talks enthusiastically about the beer that he is looking forward to drinking afterwards. Later he chugs it in two gulps while he's competing with the members of the gardening association to see who can crack the most jokes.

During his speech, Steinmeier told them that he has unfortunately witnessed the return of "those young stock market reporters" on TV. They are "almost back to cracking open the champagne once again."

Steinmeier likes to talk about champagne. He warned against champagne-guzzling financial analysts last week when speaking to crowds in Essen and Saarbrücken, as well as in Unna. It's a word from the old days of the class struggle, when champagne hadn't yet found its way to the shelves of German discount chains like Aldi.

But then a gust of wind in Unna reveals that, for his speech to this crowd of allotment gardeners and garden gnomes, Steinmeier has donned a tie by Louis Vuitton -- made by a company that is part of the LVMH luxury group, which includes champagne brands such as Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and others. There's something for every stockbroker there.

The Good Luck Cat

Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., Merkel exits her official car in the western German city of Bonn. A crowd of men in gray suits greet her, and she joins them for a stroll down through the pedestrian zone to the market square.

She walks half a block without having any contact with voters. Large groups of people are standing on the left and right-hand side of the street, but Merkel doesn't stop, not even after 100 meters. She remains shielded by the gray men, but her right forearm occasionally flips up as a greeting, mechanically and rapidly like an Asian good luck cat. The chancellor doesn't halt until a small girl asks her for an autograph.

During her speech, Merkel says that Germany's problems cannot be solved through "a debate driven by envy." In other words, champagne will still be allowed if she is reelected. Otherwise, she agrees with Steinmeier: The bankers are the main culprits in this election campaign.


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