Germany's Election-Season Consensus: Yawn

Election posters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier i i

Cyclists in Hanover, Germany, pass election posters showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and her Social Democratic challenger, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday. Fabian Bimmer/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Fabian Bimmer/AP
Election posters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Cyclists in Hanover, Germany, pass election posters showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and her Social Democratic challenger, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday.

Fabian Bimmer/AP

Voters in Germany go to the polls in national elections at the end of September. But so far, it has been a lackluster race.

One newspaper editorialized that the only way incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel would fail to be re-elected would be "if she were filmed robbing a supermarket."

That prompted one commentator to opine that the robbery and arrest would at least enliven a campaign that has been dull and short on debate.

At stake are big issues such as the financial crisis, German troops in Afghanistan, European integration and the role of Europe's largest economy in combating global warming. But so far, there has been no vigorous public debate, and German voters appear uninspired.

Editors of the satirical German magazine Titanic founded a tongue-in-cheek political party called Die Partei, or The Party. They have probably garnered about as much interest — and certainly more smiles — than the dreary national campaign.

The Party's sardonic platform includes a plan to turn most of eastern Germany into wildlife preserve, to retroactively charge East Germans for all the West German TV they secretly watched under communism, and to rebuild the Berlin Wall.

"Dividing Germany into two for good: That is our mission," says Die Partei's founder and chairman, Martin Sonneborn.

The satire has proved popular during a campaign that has been about as exciting as sorting the recycling. No one said democracy had to be electrifying. But there was hope, especially on this, the 20th anniversary of the end of communism, that it would at least be substantive.

Recently, Merkel has come under some political pressure over the German military presence in Afghanistan. Last week, a NATO airstrike — called in by German soldiers — apparently killed a number of Afghan civilians along with Taliban fighters. The airstrike sparked a new round of criticism over Germany's controversial eight-year-old military mission in Afghanistan.

But reporter and editor Joerg Schoenenborn, who anchors election coverage for the German TV network ARD, says "the German electorate is kind of bored. And the surprise this year is that despite the economic situation, there are no real issues in this campaign."

Even Schoenenborn admits that he gets bored covering this race.

"Now, I'm sitting here in my office with new poll data, and I'm actually looking for something exciting. So I hope I won't be bored any longer," he says.

Peter Hartmann, an entrepreneur from Bremen in northwest Germany, says he has lost faith in the parties that have dominated German politics in the postwar era: the Social Democrats and their rivals, Merkel's Christian Democrats.

"The two leading parties have nothing to offer anymore; they have no new or fresh ideas. Instead of differentiating themselves by clear policy proposals, they simply attack each other over petty things," Hartmann says.

"More and more people have understood this, so they are starting to lean toward the smaller parties because at least they seem to have real programs," he adds.

These smaller parties did well during recent regional elections, which were embarrassing setbacks for Merkel, the incumbent. Analysts say it might be time for her to change her deliberately low-energy campaign strategy.

Compounding the relative lack of campaign sparks is the fact that the incumbent chancellor's rival for the top job is a key member of her own coalition government. Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats is Merkel's current foreign minister.

The rival parties agree on most key issues. Constanze Stelzenmuller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says that reflects the attitude of a majority of the population.

"Germans do tend to agree in a cautious approach to foreign policy. They agree in a cautious approach to welfare state reform and to economic reform. So the, if you will, dirty little secret of this election is that the chancellor and her challenger are really not that far apart," Stelzenmuller says.

So 20 years after Germans danced on top of the crumbling Berlin Wall, welcoming the end of communism and the start of reunification, voters this year appear ready to again embrace Merkel's quiet pragmatism and stability over promises of dynamic change and bold leadership.

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