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Germany catches election fever, but fringes not expected to flourish

A woman surveys an SPD election poster in Berlin during elections in Germany, August 2017
Polina Garaev/i24NEWS
“Burkas? We like bikinis,” reads a sign by the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany

Germany is feeling the election fever.

Officially six weeks before the national vote, the floodgates open for TV spots and placards from all parties. Candidates appear in effigy form on every lamppost and expand their onscreen presence beyond the political talk shows, spilling over to the commercial breaks.

More security, less poverty and a greater focus on the environment, promise the cardboard signs, turning the typical German street into an overview of party pledges.

Before the elections, many of them will likely be vandalized.

True to their nature, the parties that gained popularity through provocation, stick to that strategy in their posters.

“Burkas? We like bikinis,” reads a sign by the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), depicting two women in swimwear. Another poster shows a smiling pregnant woman next to the writing: “New Germans? We make them ourselves.”

PATRIK STOLLARZ (AFP)

Fringe parties adopt the same tactic: Women's underwear, sex toys and latex phalluses appear on campaign signs by Die Partei – a satirical party holding one seat in the European Parliament – illustrating its slogan: “Politics you can touch.”

But public opinion is divided on whether in the internet age, such a campaigning method isn't already obsolete.

“It makes no difference to me if the signs are there or not. Most of the time I'm ignoring them,” told Daniel, 29-year old physiotherapist from Stuttgart. “It's only helpful as a reminder that you should inform yourself before voting, but for me, it makes no sense.”

“Usually they all have the same messages or no message at all,” admitted Richard, who moved to Berlin from Magdeburg. “But at least this is a source of information, for free, that people can't hide from. Everyone now knows that there will be an election soon, so even though they waste a lot of paper, people will go out to vote.”

Johannes Eisele (AFP)

Those waiting until the last minute to choose a candidate might particularly find these placards helpful, argued Aaron, another Berliner. Plamena, originally from Bulgaria, who will be voting for the first time, agrees: “If I see a face that is nice-looking and friendly, I might think that this person could make a difference and maybe search for more information about his party.”

Europe, taxes and immigration are the main topics on voters' mind as they prepare to go to the polls – the same issues to have concerned them in previous campaigns, a recent study have shown.

Analyzing voter tendencies for the past two years, researchers for the Bertelsmann Foundation learned that politicians calling for deeper European integration, a progressive tax system and more control of migration flows, have the most chances of being elected in Germany.

The AfD may demand border closure and increased deportations in order to appeal to its right-wing electorate, but the general public just wants the government to get a better handle on the situation, says Christina Tillmann, director of the Future of Democracy program at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

In general, the study found that strong anti-establishment and anti-pluralistic views exist among 29.2% of German voters, from all across the political spectrum. 33.9% identify with such attitudes only to some degree and 36.9% reject them completely.

And even among the populists, more than two-thirds are in favor of Germany's membership in the EU, and 85% support democracy as a political system.

Polina Garaev/i24NEWS

“Populists in Germany are rather disappointed democrats than radical enemies of democracy,” stressed Tillmann. “They are fairly moderate, you don't find a lot of people that go for radical solutions here.”

Calling to overthrow the government and the ruling elite? This will cost you the vote of about 12% of the electorate. Showing Macron-like support for the EU? Expect a 19% boost in the polls, according to the study.

“It really does not make sense for the German established parties to run after populist positions and try to beat populists in their game. That would actually decrease their chances of support in the electorate,” added the expert.

Such findings put Germany in opposition to other countries where anti-establishment tendencies shaped the public debate ahead of the election, like the US. That is one reason why it is unlikely that Trump-esque politicians could ever take Germans by storm, believes Tillmann.

Another reason would be the difference in political systems. “Our candidate selection process differs from the US and here parties still play a major role. The German system is very consensus focused, a coalition is always required. And if you think about it, running an anti-establishment candidate from an established party, the chances are slim.”

Polina Garaev/i24NEWS

Sticking to tradition, German candidates are also engaged in door-to-door campaigning, on top of using social media and big data to better reach the public. Volunteers for parties both left and right wings were instructed to canvass entire neighborhoods, a method proven most effective with voters already leaning towards a party but who still might stay at home on election day.

Having a party representative knock on doors can increase voter turnout in that area, studies have proven. “Personal contact and convincing people face-to-face at the door still play a very great role here,” added Tillmann. “It was a big trend in the past national elections and we expect it to play a major role in the September election as well.”

Angela Merkel, who kicked off the campaign with a visit to a former Stasi [East German secret police] prison in Berlin and a speech to supporters in Dortmund, is expected to spend the next weeks mostly avoiding controversy.

At the same time, her main rival Martin Schulz will tour the country for the Social Democrats, trying to revive the initial excitement that enveloped his candidacy.

But with a lead of at least 14 points in the latest polls, even the most cautious commentators admit: the chancellor looks set for a fourth term.

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS' Germany correspondent.

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