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Keeping up appearances

Anne Urbauer on how Germany’s politicitans have discovered that there’s a fine line between looking good and appearing too cool when it comes to winning votes.


What politicians wear has never been a private matter. How they style themselves sends powerful messages about who they are and how they want to be perceived. French voters seem to have a thing for elegant candidates such as Emmanuel Macron. In Italy, voters often go for la bella figura over political acumen and Austrians tend to fall in love with handsome young politicians, as epitomised by current chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

In Germany, however, an abundance of style can be seen as too much of a good thing. This discussion has usually been associated with Angela Merkel’s uniform of jacket and trousers. But as she prepares to leave office, the campaign to replace her has shown just how much these concerns apply to men too. During a brutal summer of coronavirus and deadly floods, vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (sdp) unexpectedly emerged as a frontrunner and how he has presented himself seems to have been taken from the Merkel textbook on what makes a candidate look eligible for power.

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Christian Lindner, leader, FDP: No longer presented like a fashion model.

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Heiko Maas, foreign minister:

Does he spend too much time worrying about his appearance?

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Angela Merkel, chancellor:

Her look became a uniform that voters respected.

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Olaf Scholz, vice-chancellor:

The grey suits have made him look more reliable.

When Scholz’s party reluctantly nominated him for the government’s top job in 2020, as it was losing swathes of its voter base, Scholz was the ultimate underdog. He lacks charisma – just as Merkel did when she was first a candidate. His monotone utterances and the way he sold politics earned him comparisons with a vending machine and so the nickname “Scholzomat”. But he has a strong track record. As labour minister, he established the regulations that kept Germans in their jobs during the 2008 banking crisis. He won the mayoral elections in Hamburg, where he was born, and has managed to deflect the blame for a major flaw in his record, the Wirecard bank scandal.

In a fragmented political landscape, majorities are hard to attain. With voters making up their minds as late as when they reach the polling booth, the candidate – not a party’s policies – is now the crucial element to any victory. In August, Scholz surpassed the candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (cdu), Armin Laschet in opinion polls. Scholz’s campaign was orchestrated well in advance, as was Merkel’s effort in 2005. Like her, he had been given advice by image consultants. And, also like her, he avoids the pitfalls of trying to disguise who he is. Scholz wears dark suits and white shirts, and looks comfortable in his own skin; he comes across as relaxed and ready. In the performative art that is politics, Scholz has a style that meets voters’ expectations of how a leader should look.

Meanwhile, Christian Lindner is leading his second bid for the federal office as the chairman of the Free Democratic Party (fdp). Four years ago, his unsuccessful campaign presented him as though he was part of a fashion show. This time, however, the sharp suits and tight-fitting shirts are gone. As a result, he looks more reliable to voters and his party is climbing steadily in the polls.

Then there is Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas from the sdp, who is arguably the best-looking man in any photograph of foreign ministers. Known for his skinny suits and smart haircut, he found himself at the crosshairs of a debate about good governance during the Afghanistan crisis. While Germany’s foreign ministers are usually ranked among the most popular politicians, the man named GQ’s most stylish German politician of 2016 now risks being remembered more for his fashion decisions. Style versus substance is an interesting battle in any arena.

About the writer: Urbauer is a journalist and consultant based in Munich working at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.

Images: Shutterstock, Getty Images 

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