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Merkel works the crowds as election enters crucial phase

Angela Merkel has never been known as a great public speaker, but after eight years leading Europe’s biggest economy she certainly knows how to work a crowd. Thousands have been turning out at her campaign stops across the country to warmly applaud and cheer her on ahead of September 22 elections, as she enters the final stage of her campaign for a third term as chancellor of a conservative Christian Democrat-led (CDU) coalition government.

“All the CDU politicians seem fuddy-duddy, but she works against that,” said Helmut, who had come to a weekend rally for Merkel in the small east German town of Oranienburg with his wife, Christine, and their teenage daughter. As he spoke, the crowd waving “Angie” placards and wearing orange CDU hats, were warmed up by a rock band, thumping out a song that seemed to be written especially for the event: She’s a Superwoman.

Once on the stage, Merkel had her audience calling out in delight the names of the three members of the German national football team who had scored the goals in a major weekend match. Then she had them applauding loudly in approval when she told them how she would stop “ordinary people having to pay for the (excesses of banks) through their taxes.”

“She has an understanding for everything,” said Guenter, who has recently retired and was undecided about how to vote. He’d come to the rally “to see if she has some clear answers.”

At every campaign stop Merkel trots out a series of well rehearsed lines, such as warning of what she says is the threat to jobs from the opposition’s tax plans, and mocking the Green Party’s call for one meat-free day a week in canteens at public institutions. “We don’t want to tell people what food they should eat,” she told an admiring crowd in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf.

Merkel was asked by the moderator at the Düsseldorf rally how she managed to remain fresh despite making a quick detour to Russia for a Group of 20 meeting in the middle of a hectic round of campaign events. “Well, the German cosmetics industry is in quite good shape,” Merkel shot back, with her trademark dry sense of humour. Polls show Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian-based Christian Social Union allies are likely to win about 40 per cent of the vote in the election, returning her to power for another four years, provided she finds a coalition partner.

Wherever she goes, it is hard to find anyone in the crowd with a bad word to say about her. “She is the only woman who is on the same level as Obama and other world leaders,” said Kristin, a 20-year-old trainee, at the Oranienburg rally, surrounded by local people clutching beer and grilled sausages, or lounging in CDU deck chairs. There were also free CDU tea bags and pens at the party’s stand. “Stay cool and vote for the chancellor” was the message on black T-shirts worn by some of the CDU’s younger volunteers.

Political analysts see Merkel’s perceived cautious but deft handling of the euro crisis, along with her presentation of Germany on the international stage, as two of her key electoral strengths. “She brought Germany through the financial crisis without any bruises,” said Christine. But, at Monday’s televised town hall-style meeting, Merkel was forced to field a string of critical questions, including on the labour market and on her failure to back gay adoption rights, which had her wringing her hands at times.

“You know me,” is another favourite Merkel line on the campaign trail. However, a key part of Merkel’s campaign strategy has been trying to bring her closer to voters by prying open the door to her private world. Merkel, who is in her second marriage, recently told a television interviewer that she finds men with “nice eyes” attractive. There has also been a confession about getting drunk on cherry wine as a student.

Out on the campaign trail the strategy seems to be working. “Personally, I find her close to the people,” said Jacques, a 19-year-old student. “She has come to Oranienburg,” he said. “It’s not the biggest of places. I find it good that she goes to the smaller places.” But first-time voter Johannes was less convinced: “It would be good for us if there was a change,” he said.

Still, it is a measure of the success of Merkel’s political style that interjections from opponents or protestors with placards do not feature at her rallies. “Who would have thought 30 years ago that a woman from the east would become chancellor,” said Christine, as Merkel – dressed in a navy blue jacket and white trousers – made her way through the crowd. So, is she a model for women in the former communist east of Germany? “Well, not for the outfits,” said Christine, wryly.

Andrew McCathie, "Merkel works the crowds as election enters crucial phase," Business recorder. 2013-09-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leaders , Political parties , Politicians , Taxation , Minorities , Christianity , Elections , CDU