Germany's Elections Hinge on Personalities
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In Germany campaigns are under way in the country's federal election. The race for chancellor is the big contest. Gerhard Schroeder is fighting to keep the job. He is being challenged by the conservative Angela Merkel. There are thousands of people running for seats in Parliament as well. And while these local politicians are out stumping for themselves, their success depends largely on how their party's candidate for chancellor performs in the media. NPR's Rachel Martin visited the town of Braunschweig and spent a day with a candidate for Parliament there.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
On virtually all counts, Braunschweig is in the middle. It's in the center of Germany. It's not old or new. Most of this thousand-year-old town was rebuilt in the 1960s. It's politically a swing state. The weather is not especially hot or cold and neither are the people. This is home for 35-year-old Carsten Muller. Coming out of the local Christian Democratic Union office he points hesitantly to a conspicuous yellow and blue Volkswagen bug with his boyish face plastered all over the back and sides.
Mr. CARSTEN MULLER (Candidate for Parliament): I had to a little bit--to get more in touch with the people and--who are very interested. And if they see the photograph on the outside they are very curious who is going to sit in the car.
MARTIN: A longtime member of the CDU, Muller ran for a seat in Parliament in 2002 and lost. Now he's running again. Even though he's driving a flashy campaign car, Muller says he's convinced this year people will vote for substance over style.
Mr. MULLER: I have the opinion that charisma was more important in the last elections. So right now, Gerhard Schroeder is more or less an actor but not a chancellor. And with about five million people without jobs, the people will see that he wasn't able to solve the problems.
MARTIN: Muller, like other candidates vying for Parliament, is tied tightly to his party. In Germany's electoral system a candidate is most likely to win a parliamentary seat if his party takes the lion's share of the general vote despite how the candidate fares individually. That means Muller's chances of winning are linked to the CDU's candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her media appeal.
Mr. MULLER: In our days with all the power of the medias, it's just the way it is. So the people--they turn on the TV and see Angela Merkel vs. Gerhard Schroeder or vs. another Social Democrat and that really moves the people more than I can move them. I try to move them with being in personal contact with them.
MARTIN: And that's what he's doing. On a visit to a local nursing home he has tea and cake with a dozen residents and listens patiently to their concerns.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: `Wherever you look everything is broken,' one woman says. `Business is going abroad because it's cheaper and better there. Here everything is breaking down. Millions and millions are unemployed. Where is this going to end?'
Muller gives a no-frills response.
Mr. MULLER: (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: `Politics cannot create a single job,' he says. `It just creates the general framework. There are no miracle workers.'
After the meeting 93-year-old Ursula Olendorf(ph) says she appreciated Muller's straight talk.
Ms. URSULA OLENDORF (Nursing Home Resident): (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: `I liked it because he didn't give a speech but tried to have a discussion about the problems. He faced up to the questions and that was important. I cannot say he convinced me, but it was interesting.'
Voters have had less time to make up their minds in this election. After Gerhard Schroeder orchestrated a vote of no confidence in Parliament, elections were scheduled for a year earlier than expected. Andreas Tyrock is the political editor at the local newspaper Braunschweiger Zeitung. He says this short, intense campaign season has made it more difficult for local candidates to establish themselves or their platforms.
Mr. ANDREAS TYROCK (Braunschweiger Zeitung): (Through Translator) More and more it is becoming about a dual between Merkel and Schroeder. It's not so much about the parties anymore, not only about the issues, but very strongly about the persons.
MARTIN: For Carsten Muller that means his political future will be won or lost depending more on Angela Merkel's campaign rather than his own. In fact, he says he could stop campaigning altogether and he'd only lose about 3 percent of the vote. So everything depends on how well voters respond to the CDU.
Mr. MULLER: I hope that they use the--from now on three weeks to make up their mind and see we have to change things in Germany. Not everything is bad, but we have to do--a lot of things we have to do better.
MARTIN: It's decidedly middle ground, but it's a message that analysts say may be enough to bring Angela Merkel, the CDU and perhaps Carsten Muller into power on September 18th. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.