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Chancellor researchers on election campaigns in Germany: Was there more tinsel in the past?

2021-09-20T16:21:22.044Z

Bland campaigns, colorless candidates, feeble controversies - there used to be more tinsel, shortly before the federal elections it crackled. For real? Researcher Thomas Birkner warns of the transfiguration of the past.



SPIEGEL:

Mr. Birkner, do you dare to predict who will succeed Angela Merkel?

Birkner:

For me as a Chancellor researcher, this is of course very exciting, because the Germans not only appoint a new Federal Chancellor, but also my next research object

(laughs)

.

However, I don't dare to predict who will win the race in the end - especially since the Chancellor is not elected directly, but by the Bundestag, and very different coalitions are conceivable.

SPIEGEL:

The top candidates have recently sparked a lot of criticism, including that Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz and Annalena Baerbock are so drowsy.

Did we have more engaging candidates in the past?

Birkner:

People tend to glorify the past, also in politics.

And then they say that in the past the candidates were completely different guys, the election campaigns were wild battles.

But what was it like when Angela Merkel competed against the Social Democrats Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2009, Peer Steinbrück in 2013 or Martin Schulz in 2017?

These campaigns were bland because it was relatively clear that the incumbent would win.

It was just as dreary around 1994 with Rudolf Scharping against Helmut Kohl.

SPIEGEL:

So there used to be no tinsel either?

Birkner:

There have been dramatic election campaigns in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany when fundamental questions of principle were disputed, for example in the fifties about ties to the West, in the sixties and seventies about a new Ostpolitik or in the eighties about retrofitting.

SPIEGEL:

Climate protection, on the other hand, is now important to all parties.

Enlarge image

Adenauer election poster: The long-term chancellors promised above all security

Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Foundation House of History EB.No.

1993/04/085

Birkner:

Today there are no longer any radical contradictions between the major democratic parties; it is more about different priorities and approaches to political issues.

And journalists of course like to turn the election campaign into a

horse race

, so they pounce on the candidates and ask who will come out on top in the end.

SPIEGEL:

Adenauer won in 1957 with the slogan »No experiments!«.

Kohl was ridiculed as a "pear", but ruled for 16 years, as did Merkel, who is not brilliant in temperament.

Do voters tend to like boring top politicians?

Birkner:

There is a gap between the view of media professionals who see Olaf Scholz as colorless, too good, too defensive, and the perception of many voters.

They rate him as serious and reliable.

And that matters, as the currently good surveys show.

SPIEGEL:

Does the election campaign also seem so empty of content because the differences between the former popular parties, the CDU and the SPD, have been leveled out?

Birkner:

During her reign, Angela Merkel moved the CDU more and more into the center, took over traditional positions of the SPD and the Greens and thus pursued a social democratization of the Union. And at the moment you can again see a kind of note by the SPD top candidate Scholz. There is a lot of consensus today. In the 1950s, for example, there was heated debate about NATO membership; today it is widely accepted. In the last three or four federal elections, it was said in the election campaign centers that the elections will be won in the middle. That was true, but it led to an alignment of the parties.

SPIEGEL:

The 2021 election campaign seems much tamer than it did around 1980: CDU General Secretary Heiner Geißler insulted the SPD as “Moscow's fifth column”, while Social Democrats and other left-wing groups entered the Union candidate Franz-Josef Strauss with their “Stop Strauss” campaign Approaching fascism.

Birkner:

The so-called

negative campaigning

is sometimes more subtle today.

In the past, people actually worked with unbelievably hard bandages and desperate defamations.

Willy Brandt was accused of illegitimate origin and exile during the Nazi era in election campaigns.

Strauss explained that one might still be able to ask what Brandt had done in the twelve years - unbelievable from today's point of view.

SPIEGEL:

On the other hand, attacks on the Greens candidate Baerbock because of inconsistencies in her résumé and a book seem harmless.

Birkner:

That's right.

If you want to become head of government, you have to endure a little headwind.

We are experiencing a largely fair election campaign without defamation, the parties are decent.

This is of course not always the case on social media.

SPIEGEL:

In Adenauer's time, there were only newspapers and a television program in black and white.

How has the growing diversity of the media world affected?

Birkner: The

media played a major role in all federal election campaigns. Konrad Adenauer as well as SPD leader Erich Ollenhauer thought back in the fifties how they could influence journalists, in which editorial offices sympathizers sit, where comments or leading articles should be placed in the interests of their own party. And then politicians already felt they were treated unfairly and underrepresented. Adenauer thought the public broadcaster was a »red radio« close to the SPD and always tried to work against it. The television unfolded an enormous force, because the candidates could explain their politics to the citizens, so to speak, in their living rooms, or at least assumed so.

SPIEGEL:

We now have an immense variety of media, as well as incessantly detailed opinion research. Does this fade the political programs and basic beliefs of the parties?

Birkner:

The almost unlimited access to political information poses new questions for parties: How do you use all the channels?

How do I address young people on Instagram like the older people on Facebook?

What else do posters bring on the streets?

All of this means a lot of effort, which is at the expense of politicians themselves.

Helmut Schmidt already said that a significant part of his work does not consist in thinking through and implementing politics, but in communicating about it.

Today politics is often communicated in real time, i.e. while it is being created.

Developing them in peace is no longer possible in the constant fire of the media.

SPIEGEL:

And self-presentation is all the more important?

Birkner:

The candidates staged themselves earlier.

Adenauer showed himself playing boccia or how he cared for his roses.

Willy Brandt wanted to portray himself as the German John F. Kennedy, young and dynamic.

Helmut Schmidt once consciously said into a camera that politics is also martial arts and that he likes it.

He wanted to come across as determined and assertive.

SPIEGEL:

Is entertainment part of the election campaign?

Enlarge image

Westerwelle at 18: embarrassment in the Gaga election campaign

Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten / ullstein bild

Birkner:

Sure - as long as you don't exaggerate, like Guido Westerwelle before the 2002 Bundestag election: The FDP chairman appeared on a television program with an 18 on the sole of his shoe to signal the election target of 18 percent of the vote.

The voters did not approve of that.

In the end, the Liberals only got 7.4 percent.

SPIEGEL:

There are more coalition options than ever before.

When will we know who will be Chancellor?

Birkner:

That can take a while. But even earlier it was not immediately clear after the closing of the polling stations: In 2002, Union candidate Edmund Stoiber declared himself the winner, then it was Gerhard Schröder. And Helmut Kohl got the most votes in 1976 with 48 percent, but the SPD and FDP jointly elected Helmut Schmidt as Chancellor. This time it will definitely be exciting.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2021-09-20

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