On the campaign trail

In case you missed it, there was a general election last week in Germany. Receiving most of the international media coverage was, understandably, the fact that the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) won just under 13% of the popular vote, making them the third strongest party in the Bundestag and the first far right party in the German parliament since 1945. That, and the global sigh of relief that Angela Merkel, the kind and sensible “Mutti” figure at the head of German politics, nevertheless has won a fourth term in office, remaining a bulwark against the impetuous world leaders who appear to surround her. This is not the forum to give you detailed political analysis of how any of this came to pass; plenty has been written elsewhere.

But what I can say superficially about the election, as an expat, is a word on election posters – by far the most visually striking element of these last few weeks. These posters, promoting both parties and individual candidates, are said to have more impact on popular political opinion than TV ads. When you walk around and see the energy invested in putting them up on literally every lamppost, in defacing them, and in taking them down at the end of the election (a work in slow progress), this seems plausible. There is a practical reason for this: in stark contrast to US elections, there is a strict limit on campaign airtime and campaign spending for all politicians and political parties, which restricts their options. Despite online methods of mobilising voters, the political poster remains a strong and much-used tool.

The posters go up at the start of the campaign – between six and seven weeks before the election. Excluding the bigger billboards (dominated by the larger, more prosperous parties), the political posters adorning lampposts are near identical in size and format, regardless of the party. A few are changed over the course of the short campaign period, most stay the same, unless they are too horribly disfigured by graffiti from rival parties – then they are taken down and replaced. (It is actually illegal to take down or destroy election posters, but some do it all the same.) You’ll often see up to four or five posters per lamppost. When this happens, the vertical placing on the lamppost becomes important. You get your eye in for how this works: the most outrageous and likely to be destroyed at the top (AfD), the most widely acceptable and least provocative at the bottom (CDU/SPD).  

The range of styles and themes, especially from the parties at the edges of the political spectrum, is vast. This election we saw tasteless/borderline inflammatory from the AfD: they used one poster showing two bikini-clad women alongside the slogan ‘Burkas? Wir steh’n auf Bikinis” (“Burkas? We prefer bikinis!”) and another showing a pregnant woman lying on the grass beneath the words ‘’Neue Deutschen? Machen wir selber” (“New Germans? We can make them ourselves”). We saw cool and collected from the FDP: the black and white image of their top candidate Christian Lindner underneath the slogan “Digital First. Bedenken Second.” (Digital First. Concerns Second.”) Then there was the classic left from Die Linke: “Löhne rauf. Mieten runter.” (“Wages up. Rent down.); and the sensible Greens: “Gesundes Essen kommt nich aus einer kranken Natur.” (“Healthy food does not come from a sick natural environment.”) 

The centre parties played it safer. We had the SPD’s rather bland campaign showing a tired-looking Martin Schulz alongside the even more tired slogan of “Es wird Zeit” and then in smaller letters “für mehr Gerechtigkeit.” (“The time is now for greater justice”). The CDU mostly had images of Angela Merkel with lines such as “Für ein Deutschland in dem wir gut und gerne leben.” (“For a Germany in which we all live well and gladly.”) and “Für eine starke Wirtschaft und sichere Arbeit.” (“For a strong economy and secure work.”) The CDU made international headlines with a slightly bizarre poster just days before the election showing a three-year-old Angela Merkel, alongside the words “Für ein Deutschland in dem jeder alles werden kann” (“For a Germany where anyone can be anything.”).

As you might have guessed, the posters generally give a condensed version of the relevant campaign message, or simply tell you which is the politician for your local area. In terms of familiarity with the main themes of the election, what the various parties stand for (at least superficially), and which individual you might think about voting for, this can be quite helpful. Sometimes the posters demonstrate the individuality of the candidate – for better or for worse: one Bündnis 90 der Grünen (the Green Party) candidate got into trouble for a poster which effectively legitimized squatting, a far cry from the official party line. Posters are not universally popular: they are often criticized as overly simplified, populist and too main-candidate-focused. All I know is that our school-age children learned the slogans on the posters which featured along their route to school pretty much off by heart, initiating many an interesting discussion about what these policies might mean in practice. Their political interest is seeded, albeit for now in the Tierschutzpartei.