Friday, August 21, 2009

Atmosphere instead of issues

If you are looking for an issue that dominates the campaign for the German Bundestag 2009, you are searching in vain. There is not a single one, but many different ones. Families wish for a more family-friendly environment, farmers hope for better prices of their produce, senior citizens complain about the low level of pensions, young people hope for an improvement of conditions at universities and more apprenticeship training positions and so on. Everybody desires for something and everybody expects politicians to fulfil their desire. Solely a strange, almost schizophrenic atmosphere is manifest: On the one hand there is the belief that the German government needs new ideas and on the other hand there is the desire for stability and reliable policy without experiments in times of a worldwide financial crisis.

This situation entails a real challenge, especially for campaigners of the bigger catch-all-parties. When there is a polarizing issue, the mobilization of partisans and supporters is easy. However, in the current case everything matters – as well as nothing. Not the candidate with the best arguments will win the election in the end, but the candidate people confide in. However, faith can hardly be created in a short campaign. This is a matter of time and suited candidates people can trust.

Due to this reason the Social Democrats are confronted with a problem. Their campaign is not focused on their top-candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but on issues. They try to get attention with posters that are supposed to show their competence for classic social democratic needs such as employment, education, health. Although the campaign is professional and the design of the posters pleasant: Is this good enough to attract voters, too?

The campaign-strategy leaves no doubt that in their view the opponents of the SPD are not the Conservatives or the Liberals, but the Socialists (Die Linke). Both parties compete for the same voter base. But middle-class voters can hardly be won with such a strategy. Most voters do not believe that the SPD is competent of solving economic problems. The SPD-campaign will not unteach them.

The SPD is mocking: We have all the issues; CDU has nothing except Angela Merkel. However, “nothing” seems to be more powerful than SPD-arguments. While Steinmeier is a controversial candidate for the public as well as the own partisans, chancellor Merkel is very popular, even more in the public than in her own party. Of course she is not “everybody’s darling”. In case of a disastrous election result, there were a lot of people who would be glad to overturn her. Nevertheless, as long as she is successful, Merkel is the undisputable leader of the CDU. Therefore, the CDU campaign is totally focused on her as a person – and on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the young, dynamic secretary of Economic Affairs, who is also particularly popular. While the SPD promotes their slogans with pictures of everyday people, the CDU is linking catchwords with well-known faces from the Cabinet: Guttenberg (catchword: economy), von der Leyen, secretary for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (family), Schavan, secretary of Education and Research (education), Aigner, secretary of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (agriculture), Schäuble, secretary of the Interior and Jung, secretary of Defence (security).

This campaign of the CDU focussed on members of the Cabinet at the expense of issues is not inventive. However, it is evidence for self-confidence, firmness and competence in content and people. It is the campaign of a leader, not of a challenger. It fulfils people’s desire for stability to a greater extent than the campaign of the SPD does.

Currently it seems that the election for the Bundestag will follow the same pattern as could be seen in the election to the Bavarian state parliament one year ago. The CSU lost its 50+x-majority not so much due to a bad campaign but rather because of the negative atmosphere within the population. For years the CSU had provoked with unpopular decisions. As a consequence, this loss of trust could not be healed within any election campaign. Maybe this time this is SPD’s faith.

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