A century and a half later, Angela Merkel seems to be modelling an election campaign on the musings of Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’; the modern day chancellor is avoiding detailed discussion of what she would do with a third term and instead emphasising her personal appeal over policy prescriptions.
In five weeks, Germans will vote in what has been billed as the most important election of the year in Europe, a continent struggling to emerge from years of financial and economic crisis.
Yet there is virtually no debate about the major problems facing Germany — from handling its exit from nuclear energy to addressing an ageing population and articulating a vision for the eurozone.
Differences between the major parties are also hard to identify. Merkel has pushed her Christian Democrats (CDU) so close to the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens on energy, wages, and family policy that the parties have become virtually indistinguishable for many voters.
This has given the parliamentary election campaign a surreal feel. There is no doubt that it is finally under way; colourful party posters in the streets and Merkel’s first week of rallies, after her return from an Alpine hiking vacation, attest to that. But there is no excitement in the air. The opinion polls showing Merkel’s conservatives with a comfortable lead over the SPD have barely budged for months.
As so often happens in Germany, a new word — “Nichtwahlkampf” or non-campaign — has cropped up in the media to describe this troubling state of affairs.
Compounding the angst have been two studies, from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Bertelsmann Foundation, showing a sharp drop in German voter participation.
According to the Friedrich Ebert study, 18% fewer Germans vote in national elections than did three decades ago, the second largest decline among western European democracies after Portugal.
At roughly 70%, Germans still vote at a higher rate than their counterparts in Britain and the US, at 65% and 57% respectively. But that hasn’t prevented much soul-searching, with Germans asking whether the absence of political debate represents a threat to democracy itself.
Last month, President Joachim Gauck publicly chastised German politicians for failing to articulate their policy differences. “Those who avoid clarity today are creating the non-voters of tomorrow,” he said.
Asked last week about this, Merkel was dismissive. “If there are similarities between the parties, that is not such a bad thing,” she said. “I don’t think the people want to hear about differences all the time. They just want their problems solved.”
One explanation why voters are tuning out is a growing sense that politicians are looking out for themselves instead of working for the public good, Güllner says.
This feeling has deepened with a series of scandals. Two of Merkel’s ministers were forced to resign for plagiarising their doctoral theses. Her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück’s campaign got off to a disastrous start when it emerged that he had hauled in €1.2m in speaking fees while he was a member of parliament. Now, many voters dismiss him as greedy.
Another reason may be the complexity of the issues. Many people simply don’t understand the ins and outs of the eurozone crisis, the intricacies of shifting from nuclear power to renewable energy, and the details of online surveillance by the US. Merkel’s response is to keep things simple, like Bismarck.
Her popularity ratings of roughly 60% are the envy of other leaders in Europe. Still, it is difficult to find a German who is genuinely enthusiastic about Merkel.
She doesn’t over-burden Germans with detail. And what she lacks in vision and inspiration, she makes up for in trust.
Strip the pageantry and policy out of an election campaign, and all you have left is the person. That may mean fewer voters show up on Sept 22, but the outcome is not in doubt.