BERLIN (Reuters) - After 12 years in power, Chancellor Angela Merkel is presenting herself as more than just Germany’s ‘Mutti’, campaigning in cyberspace to get in with younger voters and win their support for long after elections this month.
Merkel, whose nickname means ‘Mummy’, appears to be cruising toward a fourth term with strong backing from older Germans. But the 63-year-old, who unlike some Western leaders has no personal Twitter account, wants to mobilize the almost 3 million first-time voters behind her conservative CDU party on Sept. 24.
To this end, Merkel has fielded questions from four YouTube video bloggers, attended Europe’s biggest computer games convention and set up a walk-in campaign center in Berlin’s hip start-up district.
Diana Kinnert, a 26-year-old who helped draft proposals to modernize the CDU, said parties should use new communication tools to make young people put off by “sterile” politics more politically engaged in the long term.
“It would be a shame if it turned out to be just election noise,” Kinnert, who wears both tattoos and a baseball cap, told Reuters at the walk-in center.
The CDU, which is unlikely to win an overall parliamentary majority, needs the youth vote to strengthen Merkel’s hand in coalition negotiations that will follow polling day.
To some bemusement, the party has created a Twitter hashtag #fedidwgugl. Rather than the result of a malfunctioning computer keyboard, it is an acronym for the CDU campaign slogan: ‘Fuer ein Deutschland In Dem Wir Gut und Gern Leben’ (‘For a Germany in which we can live well and gladly’).
So the Berlin walk-in center, where themed rooms bring the CDU manifesto to life, is called “#fedidwgugl House”.
In Britain, young people turned out in droves in June to vote for the opposition Labour party, stripping the ruling Conservatives of their majority and showing how youth can twist the fate of governments even if they are less numerous.
With German society rapidly aging, older people still dominate the country’s agenda. There are more than twice as many eligible voters aged over 60 as there are under 30.
The CDU secured the highest share of the youth vote in 2013 but its support remains skewed toward pensioners. At the last election two-fifths of its backers were aged over 60 while just 5.4 percent were under 25.
“KEEP CALM AND VOTE FOR ANGIE!”
Kinnert, who has posted on Instagram wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Keep Calm and Vote for Angie’, says Merkel never stops learning and is future-orientated despite her lengthy tenure.
One of Merkel’s top priorities is the digitization of German industry. She has Facebook and Instagram accounts and has made efforts to show she is up on social media even if it sometimes comes across as clunky.
Asked about her favorite emoji during the YouTube interview, Merkel said it was a smiley: “If things are good, even one with a little heart,” she joked.
Merkel’s main challenger, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, has not shied away from cyberspace either. This week he was grilled on YouTube on topics such as legalizing cannabis, animal welfare and rolling out broadband internet.
While the CDU was mocked for causing confusion with the #fedidwgugl hashtag, the media attention drew eyeballs to the CDU’s agenda.
Efforts to campaign over new media also play well with older voters who want the best for their children and grandchildren, said Stefan Marschall of Duesseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University.
Merkel is the only chancellor most first-time voters can recall. This helps CDU to portray her as an anchor of stability in the turbulent era of Donald Trump and Brexit.
An opinion poll by Forsa in June found 57 percent of 18 to 21-year-olds backed Merkel compared with 53 percent of the wider population. Just 21 percent of the young supported Schulz.
Forsa's managing director Manfred Guellner said younger Germans have become more conservative than their peers in other countries: "Young people here are pragmatic; they worry about their pensions."
Reporting by Caroline Copley; editing by David Stamp