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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Bring out the wives
Doris Schroeder-Kopf, and Karin Stoiber
They appeal to women voters and men too (Picture:AP)

First came the US presidential-style TV debates between the two contenders for the German chancellery. Then came the First Ladies.

Torn poster of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
Read Clare Murphy's campaign reports

With nearly three million more female voters than male, wooing women has become an all important part of this closely contested election campaign in Germany, which heads to the polls on Sunday.

Bring out the wives, the advisors advised.

Enter Doris Schroeder-Kopf, the 38-year-old fourth wife of the current Social Democrat chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.

Her challenger: Karin Stoiber, 20 years Doris' senior, wife of the conservatives' candidate for the chancellory, Bavarian leader Edmund.

Both are blonde, both elegant, but that's where it ends.

Doris, who lives with her daughter in Hanover, is a former journalist and one-time single mother with a variety of opinions. She likes to share these in a column on her husband's website.

Poster of the Stoibers
The Stoibers: A stable partnership
Karin is a housewife from the Bavarian village of Wolfratshausen who keeps her political thoughts to herself.

But she has been at the ready to extol the virtues of her partnership with Edmund - on a website, as well as on the television, in magazines and newspapers.

"Both offer something to German women," says Barbara Hartl, one of the editors of the women's magazine Marie Claire.

"Doris is obviously designed to appeal to the younger, modern woman, while Karin is attractive to many older women here, and, crucially, many men too."

Cooking v jobs

Andrea Hargesheimer
Andrea: I have much in common with Doris
Germans now know exactly what time Doris sends her daughter to bed and how much pocket money she gives her, as well as a host of other things about her personal and public life.

"I've really liked the fact that the wives have come out in this campaign," says an enthusiastic Andrea Hargesheimer, a building materials inspector from Hanover.

"I feel I have a lot of things in common with Doris - we're the same age, we think about the same sort of things. I'm glad she's been involved."

She will be registering her vote for the SPD on Sunday.

I think its ridiculous - after all we're not voting for these women

Stephanie Oettl
Meanwhile in Munich, posters of "The Stoibers" smile upon the city, while in Berlin Ms Schroeder-Kopf is featured whispering into the ear of her husband, letting him know about the difficulties of combining motherhood and career.

But some women are appalled by the First Ladies.

"I think its ridiculous - after all we're not voting for these women," says Stephanie Oettl, a bank teller in Magdeburg, capital of the depressed eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt.

"This whole election campaign has been superficial enough as it is - I want to know what they're going to do about unemployment, not what their wives make for dinner."

Baby woes

An SPD advert which has been running in cinemas during the campaign shows a 1950s woman worrying about the dusting - Mr Stoiber's vision - it warns.

Graphic showing birth rates across Europe
Mr Stoiber and his Christian Social Union party have had to come to terms with the fact that many women are not like his wife, and do not want to solely stay at home and have children.

In fact German politicians now have little choice but to try and make it easier for women to have both career and children, if they want to tackle Germany's declining birth rate.

With just 1.2 births per woman, it's one of the lowest in the industrialised world, with serious implications for the German economy.

The country has little in the way of child care or all day schools.

Children come home from school for lunch. "Mothers are expected to stay at home and have it on the table - which is not something easily compatible with working life," says Barbara Hartl.

Anke Freihold
Anke Freihold fears election promises will be unrealised
Faced with the choice, many women are opting for career over kids.

To buck this trend, Mr Schroeder and Mr Stoiber have made family affairs one of their chief election platforms.

Mr Schroeder promises to spend more than four billion euros over the next four years to turn some schools into all-day institutions, Stoiber wants to provide more direct benefits to families which could be spent on private childcare.

"There's been a lot of promises in this campaign, but I just don't know if they'll see it through," says Anke Freihold, mother of a four-month-old baby.

"But it's so important - it will make such a difference to women's lives."

Enabling women like Ms Freihold to combine work and children is certainly about winning votes. But it's also become a matter of economic necessity.

Gerhard Schroeder

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See also:

19 Sep 02 | Media reports
23 Jul 02 | Europe
13 Sep 02 | Europe
20 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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