What the election campaign says about Germans

September 8, 2009

Strikingly different election campaign styles in Germany and Britain, especially parties’ contrasting use of the media, provide some intriguing insights into the political traditions of the two nations.

in Britain, the parties hold daily news conferences, broadcast live, where leaders attempt to set an agenda for the day — be it on health, tax or education — and then get grilled by the press corps.

In Germany there is no equivalent. In fact, there are not even regular weekly news conferences with conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat (SPD) rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Instead, they seek direct contact with voters by holding speeches in town squares and, especially in the southern state of Bavaria, beer tents.

The challengers are not interested in playing to the media because the election does not dominate the German headlines as much as it does in Britain.

One reason for the particularly strong contrast this year is the duo fighting the German election. Merkel and Steinmeier are shying away from personal attacks as they know they may have to share power again after the Sept. 27 vote.

And few dispute that either challenger competes with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair or opposition leader David Cameron — let alone U.S. President Barack Obama — on charisma.

Indeed, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder‘s media instincts — on display in the 2002 campaign when he waded through flooded areas in wellington boots — stood out because they were an exception.

But the differerences run deeper than individuals.

The national media plays a far bigger role for British politicians. Clinching the backing of The Sun tabloid was a pivotal moment for Blair before his 1997 landslide.

In this environment, pictures and soundbites become all-important for politicians to get their message across.

An enduring image of 2005’s UK election was when Blair bought his arch-rival Gordon Brown an ice cream in a show of unity designed to shake off rumours the two were not speaking.

In Germany, the regionally fragmented newspaper landscape means no single headline carries as much weight.

In addition, the overall relationship between politicians and media is very different.

Germany’s top politicians are never subjected to the aggressive, at times irreverent, probing British politicans get from BBC interviewers John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman

Although German reporters do not stand up when Merkel enters the room, as their U.S. counterparts do for the President, there is a high degree of respect discernible among Berlin’s political hacks who tend to ask thoughtful, serious questions rather than try to catch out their subjects.

So what does this reflect?

Germany’s relatively short tradition of parliamentary democracy, compared to that of Britain, France and the United States, has — some commentators argue — nurtured a greater deference to authority than in Britain.

Germany adopted a political system after World War Two carefully designed to avoid the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic — a fragmented system that had enabled Hitler’s rise to power.

Today’s system makes for stable but moderate coalition governments which cannot implement radical reforms in the tradition of, say Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, say analysts.

A series of checks and balances and the distribution of power to the 16 federal states limit politicians in what they can do.

Some commentators argue an unforgiving British media does the job the country’s political system fails to do.

For example, it is almost unthinkable that a German reporter would pose the question: “Do you have blood on your hands?” as a British reporter asked Blair after the death of David Kelly, a government weapons expert who was found dead after being linked to a BBC report stating the government had exaggerated the case for going to war in Iraq.

The political setup suits Germans who these days prefer incremental change and predictable politicians to charismatic leaders with radical ideas, say political scientists, who argue the many merits of the German structure.

But are the benefits of the German system a recipe for a turgid election campaign?

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I think that there may be the need for such securitization by the media within the British political system. In Britain there seems to be an inherent divide between the political establishment and the electorate, a gap which the media bridges. It is my opinion that this standoffishness is a relic from the aristocracy and the way that the British parliament developed. There is snobbishness a feel of a right to govern, especially by the conservatives that draws from the upper echelons of British society, and is only emphasized by resent scandals such as that of the expenses scandal. The intense scrutiny by the media can only be good as it keep the politicians honest, although it must be said that it should done professionally and with an eye to relevance; I don’t particularly care about the intimate details of a politicians life. Note just for reference for any British readers I am a scot.

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