It was - almost - a first for Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a "townhall meeting" Germans were given the chance to offer suggestions for a better society. The format worked, but the substance was lacking.
The small eastern German town of Erfurt became the laboratory for a new experiment in German democracy on Wednesday. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her team arrived by helicopter from Berlin, accompanied by dozens of correspondents – though they got stuck in a train for 90 minutes.
And it even looked as though some of the décor from the German parliament had been transported from the capital - the beautiful, baroque, white-and-gold Kaisersaal in Erfurt's old town had been decked out with the dull, gray and blue color scheme of the Bundestag.
Perhaps this was to make the chancellor feel at home in an unfamiliar situation, because as she herself pointed out, this was a day for role-reversals. Today, she would not be dictating new policies – instead, the citizens would speak and she would listen.
How do we want to live together?
Around 100 people had taken up the chancellor's invitation. Half of them had made suggestions on the Internet or in the press, or taken part in a lottery for the right to tell Merkel personally what was on their minds. The other half of the participants represented a variety of voluntary organizations, professional associations, schools and other institutions. The theme was how do we want society to look in ten years' time?
The Erfurt "Citizens' Dialog" – the first of three events of its kind – was meant to emulate the US-style townhall meeting – a kind of informal meeting of concerned citizens. It only lived up to this billing in patches. This was because the meeting seemed a little too well-selected and well-prepared. There were high-school students, an immigrant with a headscarf, someone in a wheelchair, a man from Angola. There was also a bank manager, a teacher, a businessman, and the head of an industry association.
They all came with well-prepared arguments and clever phrases, and only rarely complained about their everyday problems. And when they did complain, they did it in measured tones and with an introduction ("I'd like to say something provocative now…").
This was not Merkel's first townhall meeting. She already experimented with the format during her 2009 election campaign. But then she used the event to style herself as a chancellor who explains policies. Here, she played a different role.
She introduced the debate by saying that she had come to collect suggestions for her work in government, and that she was prepared for a few surprises. But there probably weren't many of these. The citizens were briefed in advance in small groups, and asked to keep their questions to the point. On top of this, a professional presenter stood at the chancellor's side, keeping the mood light and making sure that the questions followed their designated order.
But Merkel quickly took control of the debate and then pointed to the people she wanted to speak: "First you, then you in the third row, and then the man who keeps smiling at me – and then the woman who would maybe like to say something."
The joking chancellor
Probably the most-overused word of the evening was "okay" – usually followed by the phrase, "I'll take that on board." This was Merkel's standard reaction to many of the problems described by the audience. If someone took too long, she grumbled a little, but remained sympathetic. If she deemed someone's contribution too imprecise, she answered with incomplete sentences and swiftly turned to the next person. She created a noticeable dynamic.
And the chancellor also created something else – an informal atmosphere. She joked from the very beginning, sat down next to her people without a moment's shyness, laughed and generally gave the impression she was having a good time. She managed to project the idea that she wasn't so much the head of a government from a sprawling metropolis, out of place in Erfurt, but Angie Merkel, also from a small town in eastern Germany.
A lot of the contributions revolved around the question of how schools could be improved, what role voluntary community work should play, what can be done against neo-Nazism, how immigrants can be better integrated, and how there can be better prospects for those living in the countryside.
The biggest complaints were about the lack of warmth in society, too much consumption, and an unfair situation for workers. Ideas proposed included a basic income for all citizens and a day without TV and Internet, so that families can spend time together.
Once the time was up, Merkel summed up the main points and promised to take all the suggestions back with her to Berlin, where they would be discussed with myriad experts.
Merkel herself had described the meeting as an experiment, which is why many journalists came from abroad – they wanted to see whether the format worked.
The participants were certainly enthusiastic. One couple said that Merkel had listened carefully and given the impression that she was open to people's concerns. Ilona Taute, a teacher from the town of Weimar, said Merkel had done really well.
After the talk there was a reception with a buffet, and participants were able to take photos with the chancellor – or even give her presents. Merkel then slipped away and flew back to Berlin in her government helicopter.
Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / bk
Editor: Gregg Benzow