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Merkel embarks on ‘strangest’ poll campaign

BERLIN

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday returned from a three-week Alpine holiday to embark on what may be the most bizarre election campaign in the country’s post-war history.

After months of studiously ignoring the race for the September 24 election, Merkel will kick off a series of rallies across the country with an hour-long speech to supporters in the western city of Dortmund.

But just six weeks out from the European Union’s top economic power and most populous nation going to the polls, Germans are barely taking notice of the election.

Even after 12 years in power, Merkel, frequently called the world’s most powerful woman and Europe’s de facto leader, looks set for a fourth term.

Gone are the warnings of her political demise heard at the height of the 2015 refugee influx, when nearly 900,000 asylum seekers entered the country.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) lead their closest rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), by a 12-to-17-point margin, meaning it would take a political earthquake to shift the field at this point.

“It is probably the strangest election race in the history of the Federal Republic,” Heribert Prantl of the national broadsheet Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote this week.

“There is no wind, never mind a wind of change.”

Merkel’s main challenger, SPD leader and former European Parliament spokesman Martin Schulz, has led what many commentators call a plodding campaign.

But they acknowledge that there is little mood around for renewal, as Germans look out on a turbulent world unsettled by Donald Trump and Brexit.

After high-drama election campaigns in the United States, Britain and France, Germans appear relieved that their race is so low-stakes.

“The German elections are very difficult to understand from a foreign point of view because there’s hardly any polarisation,” political scientist Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund of the US said.

Meanwhile the frustrated Social Democrats are faced with an enemy who refuses to engage, with German media nicknaming the lonely Schulz the “Shadowboxer”.

“The SPD can’t polarise the campaign alone; the CDU doesn’t answer, so (the campaign) is dying,” said Lochocki.

He cited three main reasons for German satisfaction with the status quo: the rude health of the economy with solid growth and low unemployment; Merkel’s right-left “grand coalition” government creating broad consensus around contentious issues such as immigration and security; and a pact by mainstream parties to shun the political fringe.

The CDU has plumped for a soft-focus campaign centred on patriotism and Merkel herself.

The party drew ridicule for its soporific slogan “For a Germany in which we live well and happily”, and a campaign poster featuring a young female voter literally asleep in a meadow.

Schulz this month accused Merkel of eroding German democracy with her barely perceptible re-election bid.

Agencies

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