Merkel makes inroads in Stuttgart

Ingeborg Livaditis is getting hot under her bright-yellow chicken costume. The animal rights activist is trying to hand leaflets to the crowd filing into Stuttgart’s market square for an election rally by Angela Merkel, the CDU chancellor candidate.

But on this balmy afternoon, pamphlets against battery farming prove unpopular. Pulling her rubber mask off her head, Ms Livaditis sighs: “Hard work today. These are all die-hard conservatives. They only care about the economy. It will be a home match for Merkel.”

This is what the CDU is hoping for. Here in the capital of Baden-Württemberg – the prosperous southern state land has had a conservative government for more than 40 years - Ms Merkel is making a final push not only to rally her own troops before Sunday’s general election but also to reach out to swing-voters.

The first task is easy. The mainly elderly party faithful start to gather two hours before the event. A band plays cheesy perennial favourites. The beer stalls are doing brisk making good business and members of the CDU’s youth organisation, all clad in orange t-shirts, break into regular “Angie, Angie” chants.

Before Ms Merkel takes to the microphone, Wolfgang Schüssel, the conservative Austrian chancellor, puts in a special guest appearance on the CDU campaign trail. He scores points by thanking the city of Stuttgart for inviting him on his first foreign trip as chancellor in 2000 when he was snubbed across Europe for forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. “I will never forget that,” he pledges. But he also piles up the praise for Ms Merkel: “This woman has substance. Vote for her!”

The eight and a half thousand people in the market square cheer as Ms Merkel returns the compliment: plays the balls that Mr Schüssel passed her: “What Austria has managed, we can manage as well,” she conjures, alluding to the better economic performance of Germany’s smaller neighbour.

Her speech is appears well honed after appearances in rehearsals in dozens of town squares across Germany. But not everything goes to plan: The whistles of local students protesting against university fees occasionally drown out the loudspeakers. At times, her sentences go on appear too long and the crowd wants to applaud before she makes her point.

However, the sober manner of the East German physicist goes down well plays well in Stuttgart. The city lies in the heartland of German engineering expertise and is home to DaimlerChrysler, Porsche and Bosch. It also has the highest savings ratio in the country. Loud applause rewards a local politician who labels Gerhard Schröder, chancellor, “the state actor of Berlin”.

The party faithful love it. Hilde Kuhn, a 48-year old civil servant, said: “This is a down-to-earth region. To many people here, Gerhard Schröder is a dazzler. Angela Merkel is an honest person, she will get my vote.”

But the CDU messages do not always chime with the few swing voters on the market square. Heide Hanke, a teacher, says: “It is not all about the economy. Had she been chancellor, my son would have fought in Iraq. I will always thank Schröder that he kept us out of this war.”

Jo Krummacher, CDU candidate for a Stuttgart constituency, admits that some of the CDU policies have been at times “difficult to convey” at street stalls. Apart from Iraq, the Protestant priest says the proposed rise in value-added tax as well as wrangling about the radical flat tax concept proposed by Ms Merkel’s tax expert Paul Kirchhof had caused “some irritation”.

But Ms Merkel has found at least one new fan that afternoon. Reinhard Koller, who has been unemployed for eight years, lingers in the front row long after she raced off to her next campaign stop. “I used to vote SPD for more than 30 years, but what has the Schröder government done to the economy,” he asks. “We need a change.”

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