German conservatives turn to the cult of Matron Merkel

Posters featuring the Chancellor's face are at the heart of election campaign
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The Independent Online

There is no name, just the smiling, matronly face of Angela Merkel. With a confident stateswoman-like air she looks down benevolently from giant posters plastered across Berlin. Overnight they have turned Germany's capital into a sort of Teutonic Pyongyang.

The slogans that accompany the flattering images of Germany's first woman Chancellor are also reminiscent of an era when political leaders relied on a personality cult to strengthen their hold on power. "We have the power" insists one. "A new togetherness" promises another.

Apparently bereft of vote-winning policies and with less than three weeks to go before Germany's September 27 general election, Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats have now shifted into top gear with a new campaign which focuses entirely on their best and possibly only asset; Mrs Merkel herself.

As a sequel to the placards, German television will tonight begin screening party political broadcasts detailing 54-year-old Mrs Merkel's rise from humble Protestant pastor's daughter raised in Communist East Germany to that of one of her country's most popular post-war Chancellors. Party policy is kept deliberately vacuous. "We can do it – all of us together!" is the pay-off line Mrs Merkel uses to rally viewers at the end do each slot.

The Christian Democrats are hoping their so-called "Chancellor-bonus" will sweep the party to victory in the September poll. Most German political observers agree that the party has no option but to hide behind its leader, who dwarfs all other conservative politicians in popularity. Significantly, Christian Democrat campaign posters that used photos of Mrs Merkel's conservative ministers were taken down last week and replaced by the ones that feature only her.

Countless opinion polls have suggested that some 57 per cent of Germans would vote for Mrs Merkel if they could elect her directly. Her popularity stems from a self-effacing, solid brand of politics, an impression that she is a "safe pair of hands" who has successfully steered Germany through the worst of the economic crisis and a string of foreign policy triumphs during the early part of her tenure.

The old charges that Angela Merkel was a dowdy, lacklustre East German who was incapable of making a decent speech have evaporated for good. The worst that could be said of her is that she has cast herself in the mould of an aloof matron who always knows best. Yet she has convinced even her critics. "Angela Merkel could only lose the election if she were filmed robbing a supermarket," wrote Berlin's left-wing anti-conservative daily Die Tageszeitung last week.

The same conclusion cannot be applied to her party. Support for Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats is beginning to slip. A weekend opinion poll suggested that the conservatives could expect to win only 34 per cent of the vote on September 27. The figure represents a worrying 2 per cent drop in support which could wreck plans to abandon the current grand coalition with the Social Democrats and form a new alliance with the market-orientated liberal Free Democrats.

By contrast the polls suggested that support for the Social Democrats and their lacklustre front runner Frank -Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, although still well behind that enjoyed by the conservatives, had risen two points to 26 per cent. If the trend were to persist, Mrs Merkel would be left with no option but to continue her unwieldy grand coalition after the election.

The drop in conservative support follows a disastrous showing for Mrs Merkel's party in two key regional elections last week, in which the Christian Democrats lost their absolute majority in the states of Saarland and Thuringia. The result forced the resignation of Dieter Althaus, conservative prime minister of Thuringia and one of the Chancellor's chief allies. Huge gains were made by the successors to the former East German Communist Party, the Left Party.

The drubbing has prompted a backlash from senior conservatives including Josef Schlarmann, the head of the party's business association. He demanded that Mrs Merkel start explaining to voters how she intends to create new jobs. "She wants to reduce the election to a contest between herself and Steinmeier," he said.

If anything Mr Schlarmann's analysis has proved correct. The last thing senior party officials want is a repeat of the 2005 election which Mrs Merkel very nearly lost after pledging tax and economic reforms. This frightened off would-be conservative voters.

This time Mrs Merkel is keeping policy deliberately vague. Controversial issues like nuclear power and tax reform have hardly been discussed. Instead she and her party have decided to develop the cult of "Angela" in the sincere hope that even in an election, matron knows best.