Campaign managers, party researchers and communications researchers have been discussing whether there is any way of beating the all-powerful German chancellor in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Salomon Reyes, the campaign strategist of the Pirate party, is refreshingly open. "In 2009 we got 800,000 votes because of 'Censursula.' We'll be doing the same again this time: picking someone out and going for them." In the last parliamentary elections, the Pirates pilloried the Christian Democrat (CDU) minister Ursula von der Leyen: They coined the pun on her name and depicted her as a keen advocate of censorship because she wanted to extend Internet blocking to assist the fight against child pornography. The campaign helped the Pirates to achieve a national profile.
However, the amused laughter of the political professionals at the conference indicates that they no longer believe the Pirates have a future. After their initial success, they're now stuck at under three percent in the opinion polls. Of course, Reyes adds quickly, they'll also be campaigning on a platform of specific issues: constitutional rights, digital democracy, transparency and political integrity.
But political science professor Werner Weidenfeld sees the Pirates as a temporary phenomenon: the product of "communication clouds that blow in over our country and then blow away again." The Pirates have a campaign budget of 400,000 euros. The Social Democrats (SPD), the party with the biggest budget, have 23 million.
Three months ahead of the elections, representatives of the various parties as well as political scientists and experts in media studies are meeting in Berlin at the house of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (which has ties to the Green Party) to discuss election campaign strategies in 2013. "Will Merkel's strategy of demobilization prove successful once again?" was one key question. Or, more provocatively: "How many potential oppositional voters can the Chancellor lull into complacency by stealing issues from the Greens and the Social Democrats?"
"In cold storage"
Political adviser Weidenfeld has recently experienced several months of intense campaign fever in Israel. Transposed back to German domestic politics, he feels as if he's been put "into cold storage." Election researchers are already fairly sure that the popular Chancellor will try to avoid conflicts and keep her election campaign as dull as possible. The less people feel called upon to go out and vote, the more the "middle class camp" of the CDU, its sister party the CSU (Christian Social Union) and the Free Democrats (FDP) stands to gain.
The Chancellor, therefore, plans to play it safe: don't provide the opposition with a target, adopt their positions, if they are proving popular, ignore the Social Democrat candidate as much as possible, and make the most of any gaffes.
References are made to the "ocean of arbitrariness" on which the parties are becalmed. This recalls a famous interview with the Chancellor in 2010, in which she said: "Sometimes I'm liberal, sometimes I'm conservative, sometimes I'm a socially-engaged Christian. And that's what makes the CDU."
Unfortunately, the CDU campaign headquarters hasn't sent a representative who could correct this impression. Only Peter Radunski is present: He managed several election campaigns for the CDU prior to 1990, under Helmut Kohl. He cannot recall any chancellor candidate before Angela Merkel "who was so entirely uncontested."
So how to mobilize the voters against an apparently all-powerful chancellor, who is currently garnering even more sympathy by visiting Germany's flood zones?
"Get close to the people" is the advice of Hans-Roland Fässler, who is helping to run the SPD campaign. They plan to knock on four million doors and will continue undeterred, pushing their candidate Peer Steinbrück and their core message of a caring society, despite the fact that opinion polls have for some time now shown the party lagging at well under 30 percent.
This means that, even in coalition with the Greens, the SPD could not form a majority government. The SPD spokesman reassures himself that at least there shouldn't be any more "communication breakdowns": Peer Steinbrück has just fired his press spokesman, who has been blamed for a series of gaffes.
Honesty a risky strategy for the Greens
The Greens, on the other hand, are relying on their credibility. Opinion polls show that voters regard them as the most honest party. Robert Heinrich from the campaign headquarters of the ecological party confirms that they will come clean with the voters, even about planned tax hikes. There will be no shying away from the truth.
It's a risky strategy, according to political scientist Ralf Tils from the Agency for Political Strategy (APOS). He comments that raising taxes for higher earners will also affect the Greens' own voter base, and it's far from certain that their proposals to lower taxes for people on lower incomes will actually attract new voters.
Meanwhile, the Left Party general manager , Matthias Höhn, says that his party wants to reach that third of the population that no longer has any expectations from elections. "In some areas in eastern German towns, they simply have no time for any politicians any more," Höhn reports. Dennis Schmidt-Bordemann of the FDP, on the other hand, believes that concern about the stability of the euro will give his business-orientated party an advantage.
One thing they all agree on is that the number of core voters is dwindling. More and more Germans decide at the very last minute, perhaps even on the way to the polling station, who they intend to vote for. The Internet plays an increasingly important role, but unlike in the United States it is used less for direct appeals to voters than for mobilizing the parties' own supporters. Former CDU campaign manager Peter Radunski argues: "Nowadays you can win a constituency with 17 to 18 percent of the vote, so mobilizing supporters via social media can make a difference."
Merkel's trump card: Euro-selfishness
Political scientist Ralf Tils stresses that it's important to look at the election from Angela Merkel's point of view: She is, after all, "the central player." With Merkel, Germans feel that they are in safe hands, despite the euro crisis ("She's making sure we keep our money"). It's difficult, Tils says, to work against this "euro-selfishness." Even doubts about the chancellor's credibility in other areas fade into insignificance in comparison - such as her recent U-turn on limiting rent rises, which was originally a Social Democrat proposal.
"The Germans like Merkel because she's just like them," says Tils. They fear that the SPD might be a bit reckless where finances are concerned. Tils believes that, whatever the result of the vote, Merkel will remain chancellor. A grand coalition with the SPD would probably be her favored outcome, he suggests; the previous one between 2005 and 2009 was a good experience. Even the FDP representative Schmidt-Bordemann believes that "Mrs Merkel is inclined towards a grand coalition."
So what are the Chancellor's weak points? The political adviser Weidenfeld sees Merkel's long time in office as a possible negative, especially as there is no indication of who will succeed her. He also comments that Merkel's "social democratization" is drawing competition from the right of the political spectrum, for example the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) - a conservative party that is essentially a group of critics of the euro rescue package.