German elections 2013: Angela über alles
30 August 2013
Out on the campaign trail, the Chancellor has been stressing the track record of her government. It’s a strategy that she hopes will keep her above the political debate and steer her away from controversy. Excerpts.
At the end they stand on the little stage set up on the outskirts of the historic market square of Lübeck and sing the national anthem. Angela Merkel sings robustly, CDU Secretary General Hermann Gröhe moves his lips just a little, and together with the local bigwigs of the party, they look out over a crowd of 2,000, getting up from their little benches. It’s the end of a campaign rally, a rally like no other party in Germany puts on.
Only the Christian Democrats hold on to this national finale tradition. It shows a last spark of the conservative attitude, which used to distinguish the CDU, but has now been quite lost under their leader, Angela Merkel. Some supporters regret that. This public commitment to the country may go some way to reconciling them.
The party fuss is an annoying inconvenience. At the same time, the appropriation of the national anthem by the CDU leads directly to the central question of this election year: is the campaign Angela Merkel is leading even a campaign of the conventional kind? A campaign in which the leader of the CDU disputes issues with the other parties, in which she argues, talks politics, does battle? Or is she succeeding, even in this time of intensified political debate, in steering clear of the disputes among the parties? Can she, even during the election campaign, wrap the country in a mantle of self-satisfied well-being oblivious to everything around it?
Other parties a sideshow
Merkel has become the “Queen of Germany”, as Merkel-watcher Dirk Kurbjuweit dubbed her recently. And that is how she stands on the stage in Lübeck. Does she stand for the CDU? From far back. But she stands, above all, for Germany – that’s the message. Everyone can and everyone should vote for her; the whole fuss about the parties is an annoying sideshow. That’s what her speech focuses on, in this market square of a decidedly social democratic town where no CDU candidate has won a seat in the Bundestag since time immemorial. Parties do not come up in her talk. She does not even mention the CDU, nor the SPD and certainly not her challenger, Peer Steinbrück, whose name she has not uttered in public since his nomination as the Social Democrat candidate.
But she also omits many other themes that actually could and must be part of such a campaign speech. The NSA affair merited not one word from her; she skates over complicated issues such as the problems of the energy volte-face, and on the subject of minimum wage she always strives to clarify the differences with the “competitors”, as she calls the other parties.
Merkel skillfully picks up on the disillusionment of many, who often perceive conflicts over political programmes and different approaches as nothing but partisan bickering. That without such conflicts democracy atrophies, that disputes can be also fruitful, she blanks out. She is tuned into a widespread mood: the past four years have been good years, so why raise taxes now? Let’s carry on as we were before, shall we?
After half an hour the Chancellor reaches her conclusion, and it’s an elegant one. Come election day, she says, her own future and the future of the other candidates are secondary worries. “First and foremost, it’s about your future. You will decide on that with your vote.” Merkel does not by any chance try to woo that vote by calling out: Vote CDU! No, she simply says delicately: “I invite you” to vote. The reason: “I’d like to stay on as your Chancellor.” One cannot really accuse her of whipping up the masses. In the CDU there is a worry that such speeches do very little to stir any enthusiasm among her own troops.
The governing party, out front in the polls, is naturally steering the spotlight onto their Chancellor in the election campaign; it’s a tradition in the CDU. “It all comes down to the Chancellor” was the party’s billboard slogan for Kurt Georg Kiesinger in 1969. But Angela Merkel is another matter. She dominates her party far more than the perennial leader and Chancellor of the 1980s and 1990s, Helmut Kohl, ever managed to do. Kohl had to render homage to powerful princes of the CDU and even fend off an attempted coup from inside his own leadership circle. Merkel, in the 13th year of her chairmanship, need fear no such revolt.
As always at election times, right now she is working hard to come across as a little softer. Between elections, she is the rather unapproachable helmswoman of state, the Iron Chancellor who fights on the peaks of the world for Germany’s interests. It is a part of her fame. The doubts as to whether the country could be run by a woman, and a woman from the East on top of that, have long since slunk away.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer