Germany fumbles with Obama-style election tactics
BERLIN (Reuters) - German politicians are drawing on the lessons of the U.S. presidential campaign by embracing the Internet and experimenting with townhall meetings, but what worked for Barack Obama seems to be backfiring here.
Pollsters and strategists say the new media outlets and formats Obama used so successfully in his bid for the presidency have exposed the weaknesses of Germany's leading politicians, including a lack of charisma and clear political message.
"After seeing Obama, German parties have discovered the Internet but they forget that it can't make up for everything else," said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling group.
"Obama didn't win because of the Internet. He won because he was Obama and had a clear message. Neither Chancellor Angela Merkel nor her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier is an Obama," he added.
Conservative Merkel leads her main rival, SPD Foreign Minister Steinmeier, in polls which show she may be able to end her uneasy coalition with the SPD after the September 27 vote and join forces with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
Both candidates are using chatrooms, blogs and Twitter to woo voters and have used U.S-style townhall formats in television appearances. They face off in a TV debate next month.
But so far, neither party has scored points with the new approach. A frowning Steinemeier fell flat at a townhall meeting last week, baffling his audience with long words and convoluted sentences. Media panned his lackluster performance.
And the Internet bit back at Merkel's conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who is unpopular among young web-savvy voters because of policies they believe have eroded civil liberties in Germany.
His slogan "We have the strength for security and freedom" was replaced by pranksters with the sinister "I know what you did last summer" on the Internet, unleashing a wave of mocking headlines.
Twitter has also had a bad press after a handful of lawmakers in May tweeted that President Horst Koehler had been re-elected before the result was officially announced.
"That was seen as bad form and was not at all well received," said media and political consultant Richard Schuetze. Mass emailing efforts by the parties are also hitting trouble due to tight German data protection laws, he said.
SPD campaign manager Kajo Wasserhoevel says while he is open to ideas from the Obama campaign, he is aware of the limits.
"You can't copy and paste Obama because that would be the wrong thing to do and it can quickly turn out to be embarrassing," Wasserhoevel told Reuters recently.
Just last year, former SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil was ridiculed after he tried to get party conference delegates to chant "Yes, we can!" only to be met with a deafening silence.
LACK OF SUBSTANCE
The trouble for the campaign managers, analysts say, is that no amount of innovative tactics can compensate for a lack of substance.
"Merkel and Steinmeier are pragmatic and balanced and appeal to Germans' cautious nature," said Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
"But they have difficulty capturing the public imagination and appearing as charismatic leaders in a time of crisis," she added. Germany's history has made voters extremely wary of charismatic or populist leaders.
With her popularity ratings high, Merkel's strategy has been to adopt a low profile and avoid the slips that nearly cost her victory in 2005.
Her challenger Steinmeier, a cabinet colleague of Merkel's for the past four years, has been reluctant to attack her too aggressively for fear of alienating voters.
The disenchantment with the campaign is reflected in the success of comedian Hape Kerkeling, who transformed himself into a mock candidate with a dirty grey wig and false teeth and a program including free cosmetic surgery for all.
A recent opinion poll showed him with almost as much support as the SPD.
(Writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by Noah Barkin)
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