An uneasy election that is Angela Merkel’s to lose

The visit of the Chancellor to Dachau says a lot about her political strategy

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Was it courage, folly or perhaps an unaccustomed lapse in taste that took Germany’s Chancellor to Dachau at the start of her campaign for a third term? Angela Merkel’s visit to the remains of the concentration camp this week, where she laid a wreath and gave a highly charged speech, was the first time a German leader had visited this, the country’s first concentration camp, and it provoked a surprisingly acrimonious discussion.

It was welcomed by the few survivors and their representatives and dignitaries who attended. But others questioned the ethics of making such a visit during an election campaign, while a prominent Green politician seized on Merkel’s tub-thumping appearance immediately afterwards at a political rally in a beer tent which she said made for a “tasteless and outrageous combination”. 

But her decision to speak at Dachau and at the rally that followed says quite a lot both about Merkel’s position in the run-up to the 22 September election and the background against which she seeks re-election.

It says, first, that she is confident and riding high in the polls, as indeed she is. Latest projections give her Christian Democrat alliance 40 per cent of the vote, almost 20 per cent more than the centre-left Social Democrats, and the lead has been widening. No German national leader would have visited a concentration camp, admitted to “sadness and shame”, or referred to “a horrible and unprecedented chapter of our history” – however forceful their personal convictions – without a solid cushion of assured votes. If campaigning is, in part, about encouraging the “feel-good factor”, the Dachau camp complex, which has been preserved to give a graphic idea of how it once was, is probably not where you would go.   

It says, second, that Merkel sees what might be described as the diversity agenda as an election issue and is determined not to let the centre-left claim it as exclusive terrain. In her Dachau speech, the Chancellor described the memorial site as an “abiding warning” of how Germany “took away the right of people to live because of their origins, their religion… or their sexual orientation”. Merkel  needs to push this line because gay rights, for instance, are not natural territory for the Christian Democrats, still less for the Christian Socialists (the Bavarian arm of the alliance), and Merkel herself has dismissed multiculturalism as an alternative to integration.

In fact, as Chancellor, Merkel has an exemplary record on diversity. But a reason why she might want to give an extra polish to her liberal credentials just now is the particular fallout from the Edward Snowden affair in Germany. While the US and British public have generally taken his revelations about the interception of emails and the like in their stride, the extent to which the German state has co-operated with US intelligence has become hugely controversial in Germany, where surveillance by the former East German Stasi is something many voters have experienced all too recently themselves. Merkel can limit the damage in several ways: by maintaining that all German governments, of whatever complexion, have co-operated with US intelligence over the years; by drawing on her own experience of East Germany, but also by ensuring that there is no authoritarian chink in her political armour.

But the Chancellor’s visit to Dachau says something else as well. To an outsider, this is a town of eerily distinct parts. The concentration camp is not far from the centre, at the end of what looks a very ordinary suburban street. It is huge, dominant and unmistakeable. Yet those who live there, cheek by jowl, seem largely oblivious to the monstrosity. And for many Germans, who see or hear the name Dachau at Munich railway station, it is just a prosperous and pleasant dormitory town, one of many on that commuter line. Brought up in post-war Britain, with the names of German concentration camps made familiar from home and school, I could hardly believe, when I spent some time in Munich, that Dachau was indeed that Dachau and had not changed its name. 

Whatever qualms you may have, though, the town exemplifies the stability and liveability of many a Bavarian town, indeed towns across Germany, where unemployment is low, living standards are high, and the debilitating euro crisis can hardly be felt. Merkel’s campaign speech in Dachau was addressed to this audience – voters who have come to trust her calm stewardship and fear something worse.

To an extent this is a triumph of political presentation. It is only fair to point out that southern Germany has been a particular success story and that, nationally, Germany’s current success – at least compared with most other European countries – derives largely from the painful reforms instituted by Merkel’s Social-Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Like so many politicians responsible for unpopular decisions, he paid with his job, only to see his successor reap the dividends of Germany’s restored competitiveness.

The economy is expected to be the chief battleground of this election, and Merkel is in a strong position to capitalise on her ability to keep Germany, for the most part, on an even keel through the euro crisis. But the international elements – how far Germany may be called upon again to shore up the economies of southern Europe, and the possible impact of the slowdown in China and declining currencies elsewhere in Asia – introduce new uncertainties beyond Merkel’s control and could make her position less secure than it might seem. Her recent hint at an audit of European Union powers, à la Cameron, is a rare instance of the cautious Merkel making policy on the hoof.   

Against this must be set the Chancellor’s considerable personal following. She is still not the most accomplished of campaigners. As fighter and tactician, Gerhard Schröeder can still put her comprehensively in the shade. But she is far from the hesitant novice she appeared during her first campaign, and over the years she has developed a rapport with German voters that transcends both party allegiance and policies. Down to earth and diligent, the pastor’s daughter from East Germany has steered Germany competently through the storms of recent years, to become the acknowledged mother of the nation and leader of Europe, while appearing a rather unpolitical politician. 

This personal following is by far her strongest suit. But she is also fortunate this year in her opponents. The Social Democrat, Peer Steinbrück, is not a strong campaigner, although he is a respected former Finance Minister from Merkel’s first term and could inflict some damage. Stolid and boring might also apply to the Free Democrats’ candidate, Rainer Brüderle – a complete contrast to the flamboyant Guido Westerwelle, currently Foreign Minister, who was the party’s candidate for Chancellor last time around.

Current poll standings, though, bear only an indirect relationship to Germany’s coalition arithmetic. A strong campaign from the left, combined with a serious mis-step from Merkel, might just let the Social Democrats and Greens in, especially if the FDP fails to reach the bar to get into parliament. Nor would Merkel’s likely victory necessarily mean more of the same. Indeed, German voters seem to be angling for a return to the grand – left-right – coalition of her first term. Such a shift would hardly turn Germany or Europe upside down, but it would change the balance of both. And it may help to explain why Merkel chose Dachau – a safe seat, and a town with a past in today’s flourishing Bavaria – as a place to stake her claim to Germany’s centre ground.

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