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Analysis: Angela Merkel and German voter apathy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) (C) is welcomed by supporters as she arrives at an election campaign in Cloppenburg, August 17, 2013.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) (C) is welcomed by supporters as she arrives at an election campaign in Cloppenburg, August 17, 2013.

By Noah Barkin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans sleep better, Bismarck once said, when they don't know how sausages and laws are made.

A century and a half later, Angela Merkel seems to be modeling an election campaign on the musings of Germany's "Iron Chancellor"; the modern day chancellor is avoiding detailed discussion of what she would do with a third term and instead emphasizing her personal appeal over policy prescriptions.

In five weeks' time Germans will vote in what has been billed as the most important election of the year in Europe, a continent struggling to emerge from years of financial and economic crisis.

Yet there is virtually no debate about the major problems facing Germany - from handling its exit from nuclear energy to addressing an ageing population and articulating a vision for the euro zone.

Differences between the major parties are also hard to identify. Merkel has pushed her Christian Democrats (CDU) so close to the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens on energy, wages and family policy that the parties have become virtually indistinguishable for many voters.

This has given the parliamentary election campaign a surreal feel. There is no doubt that it is finally underway; colorful party posters in the streets and Merkel's first week of rallies, after her return from an Alpine hiking vacation, attest to that.

But there is no excitement in the air. The opinion polls showing Merkel's conservatives with a comfortable lead over the SPD have barely budged for months.

As so often happens in Germany, a new word - "Nichtwahlkampf" or non-campaign - has cropped up in the media to describe this troubling state of affairs.

FEWER VOTERS

Compounding the angst have been two studies, from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Bertelsmann Foundation, showing a sharp drop in German voter participation.

According to the Friedrich Ebert study, 18 percent fewer Germans vote in national elections than did three decades ago, the second largest decline among western European democracies after Portugal.

At roughly 70 percent, Germans still vote at a higher rate than their counterparts in the Britain and the United States, at 65 and 57 percent respectively. But that hasn't prevented much soul-searching, with Germans asking whether the absence of political debate represents a threat to democracy itself.

"One reason people are voting less is that the parties have become so similar," said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling institute. "The big ones no longer distinguish themselves from each other on the important issues."

In the early 1990s, Schoeppner says, roughly 30 percent of Germans said it made no difference to them whether the CDU or SPD was in government. Now that figure stands at a stunning 70 percent.

Last month President Joachim Gauck, who traditionally steers clear of domestic politics, publicly chastised German politicians for failing to articulate their policy differences.

"Those who avoid clarity today are creating the non-voters of tomorrow," said Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and East German dissident.

Asked last week about this, Merkel was dismissive. "If there are similarities between the parties, that is not such a bad thing," she said. "I don't think the people want to hear about differences all the time. They just want their problems solved."

WHO REALLY UNDERSTANDS?

It would be unfair to put all the blame for rising voter apathy on Merkel, Schoeppner and his pollster counterpart Manfred Guellner of the Forsa institute say.

A major factor, they argue, is the increasingly fractured party landscape which has forced politicians to contemplate coalitions that would have been unthinkable in the past.

In this new world, voters can back the SPD or Greens only to see their party of choice end up in a partnership with the traditional arch-enemy, Merkel's conservatives. This has convinced some Germans that there is no point in showing up on election day.

Another explanation is a growing sense that politicians are looking out for themselves instead of working for the public good, Guellner says.

This feeling has deepened with a series of scandals. Two of Merkel's ministers were forced to resign for plagiarizing their doctoral theses. Her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrueck's campaign got off to a disastrous start when it emerged that he'd hauled in 1.2 million euros in speaking fees while he was a member of parliament. Now, many voters dismiss him as greedy.

Yet another reason why voters are tuning out may be the complexity of the issues. Many people simply don't understand the ins and outs of the euro zone crisis, the intricacies of shifting from nuclear power to renewable energy, and the details of on-line surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency.

"Who really understands what is going on there? And who really understands what politicians are calling for on these issues?" Schoeppner asks.

Merkel's response is to keep things simple, like Bismarck.

At her first major campaign rally last week she skated over the surface of the issues. Speaking in Seligenstadt, a mediaeval town near Frankfurt, Merkel barely touched on Europe and made no mention of the biggest policy initiative of her second term - the "Energiewende", or energy shift.

Her popularity ratings of roughly 60 percent are the envy of other leaders in Europe. Still, it is difficult to find a German who is genuinely enthusiastic about Merkel. Her monotone 25-minute speech in Seligenstadt left even the most ardent supporters cold.

But she does represent stability, security and continuity. According to a new book "The German - Angela Merkel and Us" by Ralph Bollmann, she is in "perfect synch" with the national mood.

She doesn't over-burden Germans with detail. And what she lacks in vision and inspiration, she makes up for in trust.

Strip the pageantry and policy out of an election campaign, and all you have left is the person. That may mean fewer voters show up on September 22, but the outcome is not in doubt.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Martin; editing by David Stamp)

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