Nothing encapsulates German self-image like the country’s car industry. With voters set to decide between more Merkel or a change of direction, we considered what the contenders’ rides say about their popular appeal.
You can tell a great deal about a German politician from what they do – or don’t – have parked on their driveway. More than in any other European nation, how a Politiker hits the road says a lot about the kind of chancellor they want to be. As Germany goes to the polls in September to choose its next leader, we believe that you can decode the election from how the wheels of power turn – whether two or four.
Angela Merkel has steadily steered the country through three terms in charge. She’s presided over the demise of nuclear power in Germany, the European refugee crisis and the automobile emissions scandals that have tarnished the once squeaky-clean image of one of her country’s most recognisable export sectors. She has been a sturdy, reliable engine but there’s a lingering sense of travel sickness among Germans about four more years of the same. Meanwhile, divisive and ambitious contenders are revving on the sidelines.
As any good chancellor knows, keeping the automotive industry purring is a tenet of the job – not least because the car holds a special place in the national psyche. Germany pumped the first petrol-powered car in 1885 courtesy of engineer Karl Benz; over the past 100 years, automobiles have become the backbone of the economy, a bellwether for its industrial mettle overall – and an employer of many Germans. For these reasons, the matter of how a politician gets around is a key component of how Germans perceive their leaders. Here’s our breakdown of who’s looking tuned up and who’s lagging behind.
A German car would seem the obvious choice for a member of the only major German political party to flirt with overt nationalism. However, Alexander Gauland, the 76-year-old co-founder of Alternative for Germany (afd), favours a foreign make: a dark-blue Jaguar S-Type. “It doesn’t entirely fit the bill of a conservative nationalist,” says Quentin Peel of the Chatham House think-tank in London and formerly chief Germany correspondent for the Financial Times. “Driving a Jag in Germany is clearly making a statement: ‘I’ve ideas of my own and tastes beyond the predictable.’”
Contrary to the afd’s stiff law-and-order stance, Gauland clearly feels unbound by traffic regulations. He’s often booked for speeding, as well as for careless parking. One 2016 estimate credited him with 54 tickets in a six-month period. “I would abolish no-parking zones and all traffic signs on the Autobahn,” he harrumphed.
This all feeds into the afd’s anti-establishment tenor but its poll ratings have dipped to single digits from a peak of about 15 per cent in 2016. Its isolation was emphasised in June when it was the only party in the Bundestag to object to same-sex marriage. Infighting and bigger scandals have also surfaced, with Saxony’s public prosecutor seeking to press perjury charges against the co-chair, Frauke Petry.
Gauland’s fondness for a Jag may be down to latent Anglophilia (even if the firm is now Indian-owned) as he also has a fondness for tweed. “Some [afd voters] might find it a bit disloyal,” says Peel. “But I’m not sure he’s the kind of person who cares.”
Key election policies
Immigration: Seal EU borders
Civil rights: Ban burqas, the Islamic call to prayer and foreign funding of mosques
EU: Hold a referendum on Germany’s membership of the euro
There’s an enduring myth that Angela Merkel selects different marques from the government car pool to appear impartial between Germany’s motor manufacturers. She’s certainly been seen flying her flag from the bonnets of Mercedes-Benzes and bmws before but regular observers suggest a predilection for Audis. “She prefers a black Audi A8,” says Matthew Karnitschnig, chief Europe correspondent for Politico. “It doesn’t have the flashier image of the bmws and the Mercs, which are seen as more luxurious. This is a key part of the message she’s sending to Germans – that she’s down to earth and not bombastic or ostentatious in her tastes.”
Merkel’s offer – much like Audi’s – has always been one of practical good sense. Her 2011 decision to phase out Germany’s nuclear plants following the Fukushima disaster, and the opening of Germany’s borders to huge numbers of migrants in 2015, are remembered because they were so unusually abrupt. Still, nobody wins three terms without understanding voters and Merkel knows that little encapsulates Germany’s preferred image of itself like its sensible cars.
These have no more enthusiastic customer than the German government, which has spent €800m on 25,000 vehicles in the past decade and invested about €115bn in the car industry in various forms of state assistance. “Her pitch is that, in an unstable world, you’d be crazy not to keep her,” says Karnitschnig. “That even if you don’t like her, things are going pretty well.”
Key election policies
Employment: A drive towards reducing unemployment below 3 per cent
Tax: Modest tax cuts for all but those earning over €232,000
Security: An extra 15,000 police officers
Christian Lindner, head of the liberal Free Democratic Party (fdp) likes it fast in more ways than one. For a start he loves powerful engines. Growing up in a small town he learned that independence required a car so, at 19, he bought a Porsche Boxster with the proceeds from his first business, an advertising agency. Now he drives a Porsche 911 and makes no bones about his soft spot for horsepower. In 2014, tabloid Bild am Sonntag photographed him in his garage alongside a car he’d disassembled, dressed in a suit with his white tie dangling dangerously close to a greasy motor. “Petrol runs through my veins,” he said.
Lindner’s political ascent has also set a few speed records. At 21 he become the youngest-ever member of North-Rhine Westphalia’s state parliament and at 30 he was general-secretary of the fdp. Now aged 38, he has reinvigorated a party that was disastrously ousted from the Bundestag in 2013 for the first time in postwar Germany. As a young, dynamic face in a field of political veterans he has also shaken up this election campaign. “Lindner has been successful at broadening his party’s focus from a narrow emphasis on business lobbies to address issues such as education, digital infrastructure and civil rights,” says Roman Deininger of Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Lindner has tried to appeal to the German electorate with his quick wit and eloquence. “He seems sleek yet thorough in his deliberations and he presents himself as the voice of reason,” says Deininger. “But he does that with religious zeal.” A July Politbarometer poll, which rates politicians’ personal popularity, said only one party leader was ahead: Merkel. If he manages a strong electoral finish, Lindner could enjoy a victory lap and go straight into a coalition government.
Key election policies
Education: Raise spending for education to reach the top five in OECD
Business: Set up a ministry for digital affairs
Immigration: Bring in a points-based immigration system to attract skilled labour
“I drive a Volvo, an s60 I think it’s called.” One short sentence, uttered in May during a TV talkshow, conveyed so much about the man who just a few months before looked in a good position to unseat Angela Merkel. First, the obvious: Martin Schulz, aiming to lead a country whose proudest (and most politically influential) industry is automobiles, drives a Swedish car. It’s tempting to interpret this as a statement. After all, Schulz was a member of the European parliament for 23 years and its president for five until he stood down to enter the German political fray this year. He is a firm believer in the European project, so maybe his car is part of his larger European identity. Still, that alone would put him out of touch with his electorate: German voters aren’t known to prioritise Europe over their own national interest.
But there’s also Schulz’s “I think”: a moment of doubt, real or pretend, about his car’s model. To some the comment came across as Schulz appearing indifferent to cars; to others he just seemed uninterested in the automobile industry as a whole. The emissions-cheating scandals, the future of diesel cars, electric mobility, urban pollution – issues that are central in many German minds – receive little more than a shrug from Schulz.
“I think a politician from the left should be driving an electric car,” says Georg Diez, a journalist at Der Spiegel. “But Schulz is a man without claim to power. He doesn’t embody any clear political values. The spd is still perplexed about what leftist politics in Germany is supposed to look like.”
Some might imagine that Schulz’s man-of the-people image would be tarnished by the fact that the s60 is marketed by Volvo as a luxury model. Yet in Germany a €30,000 price tag hardly raises an eyebrow.
Key election policies
Spending: Public infrastructure investments
Tax: Tax relief for lower-income families
Innovation: A €20,000 “opportunity account” for every adult to be used for learning, start-up businesses or sabbaticals
The bicycle has been a symbol of the Greens since the party’s radical early days and some of its longest-serving MPs still make a point of arriving by bike at the Bundestag. Cem Özdemir’s e-bike might look like an enlightened update on the theme but perhaps in this election it’s more a symbol of the party’s search for a new purpose.
The Greens have always elected two people – a man and a woman – as their top candidates. But what was intended to ensure equality of gender representation has recently become a way of having two heads who can unite the fundamentalist wing of the party with its ascendant pragmatic side. Hailing from Baden-Württemberg, the party’s realpolitik heartland, Özdemir is this election’s realo candidate and, in addition to his pedelec, he also drives a car – albeit a hybrid. “Özdemir represents the Greens’ reconciliation of economy and ecology,” says Lisa Caspari of Zeit Online. “His dilemma is that this has become a consensus position even in other parties.” While the Greens now appeal to centrist voters in some states, on a national level leftists no longer consider the party radical enough. That’s why its share of young voters has dropped from 80 per cent to 10 per cent as other parties – especially Merkel’s – have co-opted its core positions, from nuclear energy to same-sex marriage.
“The Greens have always had a love-hate relationship with Özdemir,” says Caspari. “They knew that, to become successful, they’d have to move to the centre but betray some of their ideals.”
Key election policies
Industry: Stop the manufacturing of petrol cars by 2030
Equality: Introduce a 40 per cent quota for women in executive posts
Civil rights: Lower the voting age to 16