Germany's New Cult of Personality

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is running out of options. With little more than two months left before the Sept. 22 general election, his center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are trailing the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by a five-point margin--a dramatic reversal from the spring, when a socialist victory seemed certain. Since then, mounting economic woes have undermined trust in the SPD-led government.

Yet Schröder still has one clear advantage--his telegenic personality, which allowed him to beat Edmund Stoiber, the CDU candidate for Chancellor, 44% to 29% in a July popularity poll. Such style contests usually matter far less in Germany than in the U.S., since German voters cast their ballots for a party--not directly for a Chancellor. But Schröder is trying to change that. In a first for Chancellor-election politics, he has agreed to confront his opponent in live televised debates on Aug. 25 and Sept. 8. How the TV fight plays out could do more than determine who will run Europe's most powerful state: It could transform politics in Germany, further elevating the importance of personalities and pushing the nation closer to U.S.-style campaigns, replete with ad blitzes, image consultants, and media events.

Until now, Chancellors have refused to give their opponents equal billing on television so as not to squander the `Chancellor bonus'--the aura of power projected by an incumbent. Schröder is gambling that he can convince Germans that a vote for the SPD is a vote for him--even if they don't like their local SPD candidates, many of whom are lackluster or tainted by scandal. "Schröder's people hope he'll be as good as he always is on TV," says Manfred Güllner, director of the Forsa opinion-research firm and an informal adviser to the Chancellor.

Now, both sides are reviewing tapes of U.S. Presidential debates. Schröder's people have conferred with well-known U.S. political consultants such as Dick Morris and Stanley Greenberg. Having honed his speaking skills in the Bundestag, where members endure constant heckling, Schröder starts out with an advantage. Stoiber, who has been Bavaria's prime minister since 1993 and has enjoyed a majority in the state parliament, isn't as used to dissent. "Stoiber comes out of a culture where you can give a six-hour speech, like Cuba," says pollster Güllner. Schröder is likely to focus on the personal, portraying Stoiber as out of touch with average folk. Stoiber will hammer on the issues. "Schröder's the better actor, but voters can see through that," says Michael Spreng, Stoiber's campaign manager.

A hint of what to expect came on July 7, when the Bild am Sonntag newspaper ran the transcript of a debate between the candidates staged in its offices. When Stoiber referred to Schröder "as the debating partner sitting opposite me," Schröder interjected: "Feel free to call me Schröder!" The Chancellor played on Stoiber's image as a dour achiever. While Stoiber got top law grades, "I got through with upper-average," Schröder said.

Whoever wins the debates, the fact that they are finally being held--40 years after the first U.S. Presidential debates--reflects a profound shift in German politics. "In the future, the challenger will call the incumbent a coward if he doesn't debate," says Hartmann von der Tann, editor-in-chief of broadcaster ARD, which is co-sponsoring the Sept. 8 face-off. That shift--not his economic reforms--may prove to be Schröder's most lasting legacy.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt

Edited by Rose Brady

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