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August 18, 2013 4:37 pm
To see Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, address a party rally in her own backyard of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is to understand a little better why she is the most popular politician in Germany.
About 4,000 people gathered in the evening sunshine on the harbour square of Waren, at the head of the Müritzsee, the largest lake between the Elbe and the Oder. They had come to hear and cheer the chancellor. There were elderly citizens, whole families out to see their local celebrity, and sandal-clad holiday-makers visiting the town for its spa or its sailing. There was hardly a critical voice among them.
This was Ms Merkel’s first big speech on her home ground, in the heart of formerly communist East Germany, in an election campaign that will see her address more than 50 rallies across the country in just five weeks. Yet it was quite unlike the rabble-rousing election speech that one might expect from a more traditional German politician.
In spite of the giant TV screen, a rousing local warm-up band, a drumroll to greet her, and dozens of placards for “Angie” distributed through the crowd, it was more like a secular sermon than a piece of political drama.
She did not talk about the sort of coalition government she might prefer, although in an interview last week she refused to rule out a “grand coalition” with the opposition Social Democrats. Her official position is that she wants the centre-right coalition, of her own Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats, to be re-elected.
She made no reference to the latest flurry in the media about US intelligence services bugging the internet, or to constant speculation about the need for a new debt rescheduling for Greece. The chancellor does not respond to the mood of the media.
There was a lot of talk of social responsibility, of a sense of community, and of “doing one’s homework”. She wanted people to vote on September 22 – this election was a “huge opportunity” to take part in decision-making, she declared – but to decide for themselves whom to vote for.
Back in Berlin, the rival Social Democrats were celebrating their 150th anniversary with a huge street party. Peer Steinbrück, her SPD challenger, yet again rejected the idea of a “grand coalition”. But his party is trailing by 16 points in the polls.
Mathematically, a grand coalition looks the most likely outcome. The latest poll in Bild am Sonntag, the mass circulation Sunday newspaper, puts Ms Merkel’s conservative-liberal coalition on 46 per cent, against 44 per cent for the SPD, Greens and far left Linke party, leaving neither side with an overall majority.
“I don’t want to spend the whole election saying what the others do wrong,” the chancellor declared to one of the biggest cheers of all. “Sit down and discuss it in your family circle. Talk about it with your neighbours. And then make your cross where you think it is best for you.”
There were no exciting sound bites for TV, no quotable quotes for the media. She wanted to talk about her favourite themes – the challenge of financing social spending with an ageing population, of competing in the global market, and securing the euro to stabilise the EU.
It was utterly matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, and just what her audience expected. “She said just what we think,” said one old-aged pensioner sitting on a bench with an ice cream afterwards, looking out at the boats in the harbour. “We like her.”
Ms Merkel’s speech was certainly tailored to her audience in the heart of the northeast German state with the highest unemployment after the capital, Berlin.
Her time in government had seen a drop in joblessness from 5m to less than 3m, and youth unemployment had halved, but that still was not good enough, she said. There were too few young people coming on to the labour market. Every one needed the best possible training.
The nearest she came to political point-scoring was to reject any suggestion of a tax rise – as all her political opponents propose. That would hit the very entrepreneurs needed to create new jobs, she said.
She quoted her favourite statistics, a constant theme in every Merkel speech: Europe has 7 per cent of the world population, and produces 25 per cent of global economic output. But it also is responsible for 50 per cent of global social spending. “If we want to keep that going, we must do our homework,” she said.
“We must be good in new ideas, and making products that people want to buy. Too many people in Europe have been keeping up their living standards by borrowing.”
That was an excuse to talk about the challenges facing the eurozone. “We agree that the common currency is important, because Europe is important to us,” she said. “But we also believe that everyone must put their own house in order.”
Her balancing act on the eurozone crisis perfectly matches the mood in Germany: pro-European, but defensive of the national interest, meaning German taxpayers’ money. It is pragmatic rather than passionate.
“I know many European countries are going through a difficult period,” she admitted. “We are not through this crisis yet, but we are on the right path.
“I am confident we will have a strong Europe. Sometimes that means we have to be strict. But we must also support each other when our partners need it.”
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