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Merkel smiles through pre-election jitters

September 18, 2009

Pressure? What Pressure?

That was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message during a 90-minute grilling in Berlin by journalists at her last major news conference before the Sept. 27 election. Even though opinion polls show a narrowing in her re-election campaign and amid a growing nervousness in her conservative party, Merkel was a picture of tranquillity.

Although some of her conservative party allies are pushing for her to raise the volume and intensity of what has been an exceedingly cautious campaign, Merkel made it abundantly clear that she is not at all worried. Perhaps it was all a good bit of acting. But she answered even the most surly of questions from the pack of 100 journalists with a nationwide TV audience watching with smiles and jokes along with the usual assortment of evasive answers.

Like she has so often in the last four years, Merkel managed to find a shimmer of optimism in just about every query hurled her way. She turned each question about opinion polls showing the lead of her preferred centre-right alliance narrowing upside down by pointing out the centre-right still has a lead.

“The opinion polls are quite encouraging for us,” Merkel said even though the centre-right’s lead over a trio of left-leaning parties has shrunk to just two points in two polls and disappeared into a dead heat in a third. Two weeks ago, the centre-right had a six- to eight-point lead in those same polls over the Social Democrats, Greens and Left party. Four years ago, Merkel’s centre-right alliance also had a big lead before the election that evaporated on election day. The conservatives are particularly nervous after having seen their support plunge in the final days of the last two campaigns in 2002 and 2005.

Merkel also skated over questions about her shaky performance in a TV debate on Sunday against her rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her decision to go on a long summer vacation last month rather than campaign and her trip to Pittsburgh late next week just before the vote to attend a G20 summit.

“I treated myself to a two-week holiday because I felt it was appropriate and important – so that I could be happy and available right up to the end of the election campaign,” she said at one point. “I actually was quite satisfied with my performance in the TV debate,” Merkel said, disagreeing with the view of even many in her party that Steinmeier got the upper hand because she took such a cautious approach.

“It’s pretty much always the case that there is certain unrest and tension in a party as the election nears,” she said, adding a somewhat ominous warning to those in her party who are causing a commotion: “I’m going keeping a close eye on what everyone’s been saying.“

PHOTO: Angela Merkel smiles during a news conference in Berlin. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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