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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 August 2005, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Politics on the beach in Germany

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Germany

With just over three weeks left before the German election, the battle has begun in earnest, and politicians have been taking the campaign to some unusual places.

Pedestrians pass election campaign billboards featuring German Chancellor and Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder (L) and Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor Angela Merkel
Germans will finally head for the polls on 18 September

It is the pride of the German navy, its only boat in Berlin. The tiny launch bobbed calmly on the waters of the River Spree as the sun sank behind the Reichstag.

This is where my election campaign began, with a background briefing from a leading conservative MP.

On board there was smoked salmon with black bread, washed down with small bottles of beer or glasses of Riesling.

As the boat pootled its way through the German capital, I was treated - along with a small group of local journalists - to our host's views on the future of security policy or the Iran question.

But it was post-election speculation that was the most interesting.

Rising temperature

The conservatives were so confident of victory that they were already jockeying for position for the best jobs after polling day.

German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer on the beach
Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer has been spotted on the mudflats
At the time the view was widely shared that the elections were something of a formality.

The conservatives would simply cruise to victory on a wave of public desire for change.

The beginning of the campaign seemed to reflect this. There were no major rallies, and the nation was really gearing up for the summer holidays.

But as things have heated up, the politicians' response has been to take the election to the beach.

Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister, has been seen splashing barefoot over mudflats on the North Sea with his young Iranian girlfriend in tow.

Guido Westerwelle, the Liberal leader, was photographed playing volleyball in his sunglasses.

I took the tough assignment of a day at the seaside early in the campaign.

Selling point

The PDS, the successor to the East German Communist Party, was touring the Baltic coast.

At a resort on the island of Rugen around 100 pensioners listened as top candidates gave voice to 15 years of frustration.

Some tourists accosted a PDS activist and told her to stop all the whining
For many in the former east, life has been hard since German reunification in 1990, and this is the PDS's traditional selling point.

But as the small crowd applauded with gusto, a few metres away life carried on as normal.

Children were making sand castles. Parents were erecting screens against the blustery Baltic wind, and dogs were leaping in the spray.

There was also some heckling. Some tourists from the west of Germany accosted a PDS activist and told her to stop all the whining.

"We've been subsidising the east for 15 years," they said. "We've paid for everything here."

"That's not true," she responded. "I pay my taxes too."

This little altercation encapsulated what has since become a key issue in the campaign. The continuing east-west divide.

'Clever Bavarians'

The PDS has struck up an electoral alliance with disaffected former social democrats in the west, led by an old face in German politics Oskar Lafontaine, once Chancellor Schroeder's finance minister.

Oskar Lafontaine
Oskar Lafontaine has made a dramatic political comeback
The new grouping has shaken up the cosy electoral arithmetic from the start of the campaign with a surging support that has rattled the conservatives' confidence of easy victory.

Their initial response was clumsy in the extreme.

Edmund Stoiber, the conservative leader in Bavaria, said east German voters were stupid cows who were ready to vote for their former butchers.

If only, he lamented, everyone were as clever as the Bavarians.

The comments, and others like them, have been widely condemned and seen as hugely damaging for the conservatives, especially in the east.

Intriguing insight

There was a feeling that the conservative campaign was adrift, and there was criticism of the leadership of the candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Edmund Stoiber (right) with Angela Merkel
Mrs Merkel appears to have emerged from the crisis unscathed

But her handling of the situation has provided an intriguing insight into what kind of a chancellor she might make.

The comments were not helpful, she said, and then returned to her main theme, the government's poor record on the economy.

Her predicted collapse in the opinion polls has not, at least not yet, taken place. The new left alliance has lost votes.

And Edmund Stoiber has been left looking rather embarrassed.

A friend of mine remarked that this showed Mrs Merkel's political education.

Her mentor, Helmut Kohl, was the master of what he called "sitting-out" political crises and scandals.

In other words, doing nothing and waiting for them to go away.

His critics say it was also his approach to Germany's economic problems, which only got worse as a result.

Theme tune

On this score at least, Mrs Merkel has promised to be different and this week she also took her message to the beach.

To the tune of the Rolling Stones' 70s hit Angie, she told a couple of thousand holiday makers that she would reform the economy and create more jobs.

We will see what effect it has on polling day, but meanwhile the key decision in Germany this week was announced by eight men and women in strange scarlet-coloured hats and cloaks.

The judges in Germany's Supreme Court ruled the election can go ahead, rejecting a legal challenge from two backbench MPs who said constitutional procedures had not been properly followed.

So battle will now begin in earnest.

Next week, four of the major parties will hold set-piece pre-election conventions, followed by the TV debate between Angela Merkel and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Stage-managed, mass-media events will steal the attention from the much more pleasant bucket-and-spade politics of the last three weeks.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on 25 August, 2005, at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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