Merkel and Steinmeier stand in for EP candidates

BERLIN — Campaign posters for the upcoming European Parliament elections dominate street-side billboards, line walls, and are stacked one on top of another — sometimes three high — on lampposts in Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose parties govern Germany in a "grand coalition," smile down from their respective posters. On many, the actual candidates for the European Parliament are nowhere in sight.

Germany is seeing one of the most aggressive campaigns ahead of the European election, but not because people here understand, care about, or will even turn out to vote for the international body. Rather, politicians are ratcheting up the rhetoric for a vote that is seen as a dress rehearsal for the German national elections in September: different candidates, same parties.

"Millionaires pay up," read posters from the Left Party, which has the support of one in 10 Germans thanks to promises like taxes of up to 80 percent at the highest income brackets. "Out of Afghanistan!" reads another of its ads.

The Left Party is notoriously obstreperous, but EU slogans from Steinmeier's left-leaning Social Democrats have grabbed attention for departing from the usual subdued tone in German politics.

"Hot air votes Left Party," read the Social Democrats' signs, illustrated by a figure with a hair dryer for a head. Another, "finance sharks vote FDP," refers to the supposedly rapacious pro-business Free Democrats. "Wage dumpers vote CDU," alludes to reluctance to adopt a national minimum wage on the part of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.

The name-calling posters have little to do with the EU, and more to do with growing frustration on the part of the "grand coalition's" junior partner. Steinmeier and Merkel will face off for the chancellorship in four months, but until then they are in the awkward position of governing together while campaigning against one another. Merkel is both the boss and the favorite to win come September.

Experts expect Sunday's EU results to illuminate possible new national coalitions to lead Germany. European elections are seen as referenda in other countries, too, and embattled leaders like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Gordon Brown in the U.K. will be watching results just as closely as Merkel. But the window between European and national elections in Germany is particularly narrow.

Support for Germany's two largest parties is at its lowest ebb in decades, as smaller parties successfully chip away at their numbers from the left and right. This means a wider spread of views at the European Parliament, where seats are apportioned to all parties that receive more than 5 percent of the popular vote. And it may make a tricky business of coalition-building after the national elections in September.

But the financial crisis may still reverse this trend, sending German voters back to the center. Merkel has her hopes up for a partnership with the Free Democrats, but if they don't get enough votes in September, the chancellor may find herself back in the same unhappy marriage with Steinmeier.

"Crises tend to benefit the far right and left, but that has so far not been the case here," said Forsa Institute head Manfred Guellner. "Germans tend to look for security in times of crisis."
Germans are cautious of populist leaders, said Guellner, and mindful that Hitler was swept to power amid an economic crisis.

Many experts have been surprised by the Left Party's inability to make hay from its anti-capitalist position following the economic crisis.

"Rhetoric is not what the people seem to want," Guellner said.

For obvious historical reasons, biting rhetoric is not a feature of German politics, and Merkel and Steinmeier's sniping at one another is still very low-key.

So the sharp tone of the Social Democrat's posters came as a surprise.

"Steinmeier should be ashamed of himself," said Free Democrat Secretary General Dirk Niebel.

The last time the Social Democrats drew controversy during European elections, it was with a 2004 poster that superimposed a crescent onto the EU flag and read “Turkey, welcome to Europe!” in the Turkish language. The poster raised hackles in a country uneasy about the integration of its largest minority, some 2.7 million ethnic Turks that make up 3.3 percent of the country’s population.

Five years later, Turkey’s bid to join the EU is still the biggest issue at stake for Germans in the European Parliament elections, with Christian Democrats preferring a hazily defined "special partnership" and Social Democrats supporting full membership.

But Germans might be hard-pressed to name other issues in the campaign for a European Parliament that is viewed as at best mysterious and at worst impotent.

Ignorance breeds contempt, and voter turnout is expected to be a mere 43 percent, the lowest in EU history.

"Voting for the European Parliament is more important than many citizens think," begins a typical EU election story in Bild, Germany’s highest circulation newspaper.

A headline from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung echoes what many Germans wonder about the EU’s only directly elected body: "What do they do, actually?"

They aren’t going to find many answers on the posters in Berlin, which are fighting another, proxy battle.

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