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Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 14:05 UK

'Merkel factor' could decide German vote

Poster of Angela Merkel
Posters of Angela Merkel have been springing up across Germany

Angela Merkel was once criticised for looking dowdy and lacking charisma, but now the "Merkel factor" is considered her key asset as she seeks re-election as German chancellor, writes the BBC's Tristana Moore in Berlin.

Angela Merkel's face is everywhere these days, from billboards to newspapers and TV talk shows.

With the German federal election on 27 September fast approaching, conservative campaign managers are pinning their hopes on the Merkel factor to reach out to undecided voters.

After four years as head of the grand coalition, Angela Merkel has emerged as Germany's most popular politician, well ahead of her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

German voters aren't stupid - they don't want a Britney Spears as the chancellor
Detmar Doering
Liberal Institute, Potsdam

Merkel has transformed her dour, staid appearance, sporting a new hair-do and wearing bright-coloured jackets.

"Some people said Angela Merkel was boring and provincial, but they underestimated her," said Detmar Doering, the head of the Liberal Institute in Potsdam.

Mr Doering says Mrs Merkel does not need to rely on charisma to win over voters, because she is a pragmatic politician who inspires confidence.

"Angela Merkel has developed a presidential style of leadership," he says.

"German voters aren't stupid - they don't want a Britney Spears as the chancellor of Germany, they want a serious leader whom they can trust. Merkel knows what she's doing."

The chancellor has cultivated an image of a caring figure, a "mother of the nation".

PR coup

But at the same time, she has proved her mettle. She has steered Germany through the recession, she has won plaudits on the international stage and she has managed to outmanoeuvre her ambitious, male rivals.

The quiet, unassuming physicist who grew up in communist East Germany is now well-known for her ability to draw a large crowd at campaign rallies, and her opponents have been relegated to the sidelines.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier at the TV debate
Angela Merkel and Frank Walter Steinmeier are coalition partners

Germany is now officially out of its worst recession since World War II and Chancellor Merkel has won praise for her handling of the economic crisis.

Her coalition government introduced a multi-billion-euro bank bailout and two fiscal stimulus packages, including a populist measure - the car scrapping bonus which was offered to people to trade in their old cars for new ones.

Recently, Chancellor Merkel pulled off a big PR coup when the US car giant, General Motors, agreed to sell the German carmaker, Opel, to Merkel's favourite bidder, the Canadian car-parts firm, Magna, although it was a controversial decision.

This was one of the economic issues that have dominated the election campaign, with CDU and SPD television adverts focusing on jobs.

Most commentators agree that Mrs Merkel is likely to continue as chancellor after the election, even if her conservative CDU/CSU alliance is not strong enough to form a government on its own.

She has courted the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which she would like to replace the SPD as her coalition partner.

According to a recent poll commissioned by the television channel ZDF, the CDU/CSU bloc (with 36%) and the FDP (with 14%) may still win a slim majority, scraping together around 50% of the vote. The poll suggests the SPD has 23% of the vote, the ex-communist Left Party has 11% and the Greens also have 11%.

"We've never had such a tough recession in Germany, with the economy contracting by 5-6%," said Chancellor Merkel in an interview with the "Sueddeutsche" newspaper on Saturday.

"We need a stable government: and a government with the FDP is the best option to achieve sustainable economic growth as quickly as possible," she added.

Deals with left

Under Guido Westerwelle, the liberal FDP party has appealed to traditional conservative voters disillusioned with Chancellor Merkel's leftward shift over the past four years.

As head of the grand coalition, Mrs Merkel has often made compromises with the SPD, agreeing to a minimum wage in some sectors and announcing the fiscal stimulus plans.

German supporters of Angela Merkel
Merkel is known for drawing big crowds

The FDP is pushing a neo-liberal agenda, pledging tax cuts, health and labour market reforms. After 11 years in opposition, the FDP is desperate to get back into government.

During the campaign, Mrs Merkel has made a vague pledge to cut taxes in the future, despite Germany's soaring budget deficit.

The CDU was rattled after state elections last month, in which the CDU and SPD lost ground to the smaller parties - the Left Party, the FDP and the Greens - and there were calls for Angela Merkel to adopt more aggressive tactics Mr Steinmeier.

But Merkel brushed aside criticism and resolutely declared: "I'm not going to become more aggressive, instead I'm going to put forward my arguments."

Chancellor Merkel's success is also due in part to the weakness of her main challenger, the SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

An uncharismatic politician, Mr Steinmeier has failed to capture the public imagination and his SPD party has been torn apart by internal struggles.

His campaign pledge to create four million jobs if the Social Democrats win the election was widely condemned as unrealistic. The SPD has ruled out forming an alliance with the radical Left Party at the federal level, limiting Mr Steinmeier's coalition options.

"There are really only two options left for the next government: it will be either a continuation of the grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, or a centre-right coalition of the CDU/CSU and FDP," said Uwe Jun, a professor of political science at the University of Trier.

"This has been a dull campaign. Germans aren't in the mood for change and in the end, undecided voters will probably cast their ballots for Angela Merkel's party," he said.

According to some surveys, up to 40% of Germans still have not made up their minds about how they will vote, so there remains a lot to play for.



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