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Federal elections in Germany are set for September 18. All forecasts have CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as winner - which would make her Germany's first female chancellor. Jörg Lau looks at the major protagonists in a "strange election campaign".


Sighing, sweating, screeching

In the run-up to the federal elections, Schröder, Merkel and Co. give their all. But the voters aren't having any of it. By Jörg Lau

This is a strange election campaign. You can tell because even the simplest things are going wrong. The Linkspartei (1) for example, plagued by the unfortunate private jet scandal that ensnared Oskar Lafontaine, tried to send the people a nicer message by showing their top two candidates radiating confidence and harmony. But the giant poster of Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi now adorning the streets of Germany instead shows two smirking suntanned bon vivants who appear to be giggling about their latest escapades. The good humour of these two self-satisfied gents stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of proletarian impoverishment being propagated by the Left Party. Gysi's devote posture vis-à-vis the great Chairman Lafontaine – on display for all the world to see – is testimony to the price paid for taking the PDS westwards. This is an election of staged set-pieces that lay bare their protagonists whether they like it or not.

Despite this, the election has a bad name. "The announcement that we're moving into the final torrid phase of the election", wrote author Monika Maron in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently, "is the signal for a voluntary dumbing down." But if you spend any time on the ground between Chemnitz and Wilhelshaven, Augsburg and Hildesheim, the signals you hear are different. This election campaign, which thanks to its brevity has been heated from the start, is not going to the strategists' plans. Anyone who's interested can learn something about the limits of political manipulation and the public's stubbornness just by visiting the nation's squares and marketplaces.

Of course the people flocking to the election speeches – and in surprisingly large numbers – are coming for the spectacle. When was the last time we saw a drama like this: incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is the real challenger in this election campaign, up against an opposition leader – Angela Merkel – who has to talk as if she's already in power. One reason people come to hear Schröder is to see if he can convince himself and his public that he might yet make it, even though opinion polls refuse to budge - and this despite his opponent Edmund Stoiber's recent estrangement of East Germans who he called "frustrated", despite Iran, despite the recent floods in Bavaria. One also wonders whether he has drawn his strength from self-hypnosis or if it springs from the anticipated liberation from his official duties.

By contrast, Angela Merkel is worth watching to see whether she really deserves what looks like her impending victory. Will she overplay the "We've-made-it-already" feeling that is forcing her party behind her and provoke the competitors in her own ranks into trying to make a name for themselves at her expense? The "man who is still Chancellor" has to pretend that he's totally convinced of victory, the "woman who would be Chancellor" is caught in a construct of expectations: the public reads each of the candidates' sound bites in full awareness of this script.

Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel have about twenty major appearances to make before election day. Day after day they traverse the country from Regensburg to Stralsund: helicopter, limousine, city hall, factory visit, speaker's podium, limousine, restaurant, helicopter. And in between, just so they don't get bored: talkshows, party conferences and interviews. Together, the two main candidates will reach some two million voters directly. That's just a third of the audience of one of Sabine Christiansen's talk shows. So it's quite irrational to do it till you drop – like SPD party chairman Franz Müntefering who recently collapsed on stage.

Why are they pulling out all the stops? It's clearly not about reaching the largest amount of people in the most effective way. It's rather a celebration of the sovereignity of the people. Put a little more simply, it's a symbolic bow by the political class to a people from whom they have become increasingly estranged. The greater the alienation, the more pain they have to go through – sighing, sweating and screeching – to make atonement. This election campaign's records - Joschka Fischer's 14,000 kilometre bus tour, Merkel and Schröder's forty major appearances in just five weeks - send an ambivalent message, like an over-pricey wedding gift that merely highlights a falling out.

This election campaign is ritual and reality-check in equal measure. Gerhard Schröder's appearance last week in flood-damaged Augsburg was a classic example of this dialectic. He was greeted in the campaign tent with the words: "We don't need politicians in wellies." The warning is clearly unnecessary. Schröder knows that you don't wade into the same flood twice (2). He avoids striking the wrong tone. He praises the rescue teams, expresses sympathy with the victims – and all with enough modesty to guarantee that nobody thinks he's trying to profit from the catastrophe. The Chancellor is at his best this evening. He attacks, pleads and mocks enough for two. When Schröder strikes out in both directions – against champagne socialist Lafontaine who's wallowing in a "right-wing swamp" and against Paul Kirchhof (3), "the professor from Heidelberg" with his "dreadful attitude to women" (4). The beer mugs bang the table enthusiastically in the marquee. The people here are a little perplexed to note that Schröder has finally come out fighting for the Red-Green, or SPD and Green Party, coalition.

Have you ever heard him talk so passionately about women's rights or renewable energy sources? The floods, he suggests, really do show (clearly he can't quite avoid the temptation to exploit the floods' potential) how much this country needs the "ecological sensibility" of his government. He talks a lot about what's been achieved, the historical profile of this Chancellor Schröder, the chancellor of reform and peace. He spends a little too much time warning people about the foreboding future and how "the others" would like it to be – full of radiating nuclear power plants and women chained to the stove. Still, the 3,000 Augsburgers here hadn't expected to see so much force.

Schröder's election campaign speech, modulated for the occasion – now peace (Iran), now all-German (Stoiber), now ecologically sensitive (flood) – has one basic problem. This has to do with this election campaign's screwy scenario, which casts him in the role of the almost hopeless challenger, a challenger who simultaneously has to defend his life's work. The undertone of Schröder's speech is: this country isn't as bad as it thinks it is. The others are talking it down. And they wouldn't do it better than me. Those who already fear "the other", will feel comfortable being around the feisty Schröder. But the Chancellor has found his niche at the expense of his party, who thanks to his desperado-turbo-election campaign are prevented from making offers for the post-Schröder era in the last few weeks of the election fight. And the challenger seems to have given up on anyone whose concerns about Germany do not stop at the thought of Merkel and Kirchhof taking power.

Angela Merkel, still accompanied by so much election campaign noise – loud rock music, orange "Angie" posters, vociferous introductions – cannot be sold as a gripping public speaker. We have to "look at the facts and bring about change" she tells 8,000 supporters whipped up on Hannover's Opernplatz, and it sounds like she's trying to dampen the enthusiasm of the "Angie" fans. She just can't emote. When she tries, by criticising extremist Islamic preachers who should "leave" Germany, she trips over her tongue. In the Turkey question she sticks with her thin-lipped offer of a "privileged partnership" and foregoes the Christian cultural warrior tones to which the Bavarians are so partial.

That's good to know. Because at Conservative events there's always a little too much applause when the issue at stake is Turks who should learn German properly. Merkel's appearances don't give the public much fodder. She wastes far too much time talking about how she's going to raise V.A.T. and introduce a pension bonus for children. She doesn't play her trump card, Paul Kirchhof, maybe for fear of the growing resistance to his ideas within her own ranks. Kirchhof could have been an opportunity to make the election campaign a competition for ideas about the state and freedom. But Merkel reduces the utopian-visionary traits of her shadow finance minister to the country saying, "what's simple is just".

And yet. There is something in Merkel's non-performance that appeals to people in Chemnitz just as much as in Hanover. The refrain goes something like this: "We don't want to do our country down, but please don't act as if we've got the problems under control. The others have given up. We're prepared to radically rethink things, hence Kirchhof. Hard times are coming. Let's work." The mood of Merkel's speech veers between concern and the desire for liberation. Her attraction comes from the negative: the overwhelming absence of populism draws you in, and amazingly so even among pensioners and people in the East for whom she envisages more lean years.

The populism of the Conservatives' election campaign is focused on one point: the Greens as the root of all evil. The anger directed at Jürgen Trittin (Environment Minister) and Renate Künast (Minister for Consumer Protection and Agriculture), who are perceived as the apotheosis of bureaucratic brakemanship by the right, is evoked at every opportunity. Then they have to pay lip-service to the need to nurture our natural resources. But the sense of duty with which these sentiments are rolled out looks just as implausible against the backdrop of a record oil price, floods, desertification and hurricanes, as Schröder's suddenly discovered ecological sensibility. If you want to demonstrate what's wrong with Germany, there's always an anecdote about the Greens you can use. The biggest hit in Merkel's speech is an invective aimed at Hans-Christian Ströbele. The deputy's bicycle was stolen at the Reichstag whereupon, the story goes, he then began to recognize the value of video surveillance of public spaces. Ströbele, the crusader against state surveillance, demanding to see the video tapes at the parliamentary administration building – the story is also greeted with great hilarity.

For their part, the Greens are ever more desperate to find a polarizing issue. They too are stuck with a lonely top candidate who, in an unrealistic bid to save his life's work, blocks every attempt by the party to adjust to the post-Red-Green era. On his "Joschka Tour" of 60 cities only his tired voice demonstrates his unconditional belief in a Red-Green victory which he is otherwise unable to make plausible. Joschka Fischer's events are well-attended and the applause is heartfelt. So is there hope? Probably not - the Greens in Berlin are already thinking of starting a campaign for people's second vote at the cost of the SPD.

Only the nomination of Paul Kirchhof – whose surname means "churchyard" - provides any hope. Fischer has already used it in the slogan: "Justice is buried in this churchyard". But it's pretty doubtful whether they can score points by launching a cultural war against Kirchhof. The professor doesn't make a very good hate figure. Someone who wants to try and get the rich to start paying taxes again by cutting tax loopholes doesn't really live up to the double cliche "neoconservative market radical" that Green chairman Bütikofer has applied to him. And they are deceived if they believe they can nail him by portraying him up as an obsessive nostalgic for patriarchal family values. Nobody is seriously concerned about a conservative roll-back imposed from above. Today, the conservative comes from below. The desire for fulfilment through family and children – which was the idea behind his statement that "children are normally part of a fulfilling life" – is reputedly a widespread sentiment among Greens too.

Not only the Greens are trying to cash in on Kirchhof. FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle recently joked that rumours Kirchhof was a member of his party had no basis in fact – hence propelling them into the newspapers again. It was a pretty outrageous attempt to profit from the hype surrounding the professor from Heidelberg, instead of having ideas of his own. In these strange weeks, the FDP could actually be responsible for the greatest miracle: How to gain power without really making an effort.

But piggy-backing could turn out to be risky in this election campaign in which all sides are increasingly good at seeing through the others. Instead of voluntary dumbing down, there's a steady process of public self-enlightenment. The rapidly declining popularity of the Left Party is only the most obvious example of that. The number of voters who refuse to see that reform is necessary seems now to lie between just eight or nine percent. That is the Left Party's market niche. All the other parties are busy either justifying yesterday's difficult decisions or explaining that tough times are ahead. And that's the good news: amazingly, with the mounting drama of the election campaign, people are getting better and better at distinguishing the hype from the substance. We aren't dumbing down after all.


1) The Left Party. Formed by the merger of the successor party to the East German Communists, the PDS, and the recently formed WASG, created by defectors from the SPD in protest at Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reforms. Its leaders are former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine and former PDS leader Gregor Gysi.

2) Chancellor Gerhard Schröder won the election in 2002 due to his stance against the Iraq war and his role in the flooding of the Oder River during which he managed to portray himself as an effective crisis manager.

3) Paul Kirchhof is regarded as the ace in Angela Merkel's campaign. The former constitutional court judge and financial expert has set out reforms that envisage a flat income tax rate of 25 percent – amounting to a real revolution in German tax law that many people consider a jungle of regulations, exceptions and loopholes.

4) Kirchhof's line is now infamous: "A mother has a career in her family, giving her not power but friendship, not money, but happiness."


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 1, 2005.

Jörg Lau was literary editor of the tageszeitung before joining the Berlin bureau of Die Zeit. He is author of the book "Hans Magnus Enzensberger - Ein öffentliches Leben" (Alexander Fest Verlag, 1999).

Translation: Stephen Taylor. - let's talk european