Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 September 2013

Posters hang from lampposts, bright A4 prints plastered onto cardboard and tied hastily and haphazardly far above head height. A succession of billboards stand proud by the side of the road, one after the other, blasting out their competing messages.

In some cities it can be hard to tell when it’s election time. Not in Berlin. The centre of Germany’s capital is covered in slogans and party colours, the main party candidates and their local counterparts pictured in a series of vote-for-me styles. The stern, serious, “I’ll-sort-out-the-economy” stare; the happy, relaxed, “I’m-ordinary-just-like-you” smile.

The voters aren’t left out – they have been more than happy to make their feelings known with marker pens too, judging by the graffiti adorning many of the posters at street level. A candidate’s eyes are crossed out, slogans are slightly adjusted to make them offensive – or just nonsensical. And those who scrawl across Angela Merkel’s smiling visage appear to come from both extremes – on one poster the Star of David has been inked on her cheek, in another a Hitler moustache has appeared above her top lip.

For all the talk of this election being boring (it is) and the result being obvious (it is), at least the voting public cannot complain that they don’t know it’s happening. The posters tell us something else as well – German politics is becoming more personal.

Germans don’t vote for leaders, they vote for parties. The personal popularity of Angela Merkel or Peer Steinbrück simply won’t have as much bearing on the vote as the strength or otherwise of their respective parties.

Perhaps, but I suspect that might be about to change, just as it has in Britain. Here we vote for parties not leaders too, at least in theory, but ever since Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 our elections have increasingly resembled a presidential campaign. In every election since then the most prime-ministerial candidate has won – Thatcher triumphed over the less dynamic James Callaghan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. John Major, while no charismatic tour de force, was seen as a good bloke and a far safer pair of hands than Kinnock. Tony Blair saw off a succession of Tory leaders who simply couldn’t be envisaged walking through the doors of Number 10.

If there has been a similar change in German politics the evidence won’t necessarily be in next week’s result – Merkel’s victory has never really been in doubt. But it will be clear in four years time when both sides come to pick their candidates. If the most charismatic and the more likeable are chosen, Germany will have joined the world of presidential politics – and there will be even more posters on the streets to prove it.

Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.

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