Sailboats ply the Baltic Sea off of Stralsund, a stunningly quaint German town dotted with Gothic red-brick architecture, a legacy of its position as a trading center of the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries.
But behind the charming scene lies a grimmer reality: joblessness, low wages, and population decline.
This is German Chancellor Angela Merkel's “other” Germany. Not the gleaming one that is powering Europe and calling the shots with Ms. Merkel's center-right party at the helm, but one where people look for a better life elsewhere.
And yet, despite her leftist rivals' calls to increase wages and tax the rich – proposals that could benefit many in Stralsund – this town is firmly Merkel territory. In fact, if any place in Germany shows how today's elections have transcended issues, becoming a campaign about a person – Chancellor Merkel – and not a set of policy issues on the table, it is here in Stralsund.
“Merkel is the right person to do the job needed to be done,” says Wotan Drescher, a civil engineer and member of the CDU in Stralsund. “She has a strong character, she does what she says she'll do.”
Some three-quarters of Germans feel the same, giving Merkel a 70 percent approval rating as she makes a third bid for another four-year term as chancellor of Germany. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which she heads, is polling some 15 points ahead of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by Peer Steinbrück, though her party does not have an absolute majority. She will likely have to forge a coalition, possibly with the SPD in a so-called “grand coalition.”
A lagging East Germany
As chancellor of Germany, all corners of the nation are Merkel's responsibility. But here in Stralsund she has a dual role: Merkel runs as the local MP in this part of Germany, a seat she has held and consistently won since 1990 – the year the former physicist from East Germany entered politics.
Stralsund sits off the Baltic Coast and draws tourists by the busload, who make boat trips to local islands and do walking tours of the historic center, a UNESCO world heritage site.
As a former city of East Germany, Stralsund confronts the the same problems faced elsewhere in the East, including aging populations and weak economic development.
“Unemployment is our biggest problem,” says Martina Steinfurth, the head of a local Caritas office in Stralsund. Joblessness sits at twice the national average of 5 percent. It's so bad that generations of educated children – including most likely her own – leave to go west, to Hamburg, or other major cities where they can find opportunities. That leaves a median age of 55 in Stralsund, she says.
Many here are also trapped into low-wage work. And it is these workers who might appeal to a major campaign issue of the SPD this year, to implement a blanket minimum wage of 8.5 euros ($11.50) an hour across the country.
“People do not earn enough money here,” says Merkel's SPD rival in the local race, Sonja Steffen. She is at a campaign event in neighboring Greifswald and says she is fighting for those who live off 5 euros an hour. “I am working for better incomes and wages.”
This issue, however, exemplifies how the campaign has become, essentially, issueless, frustrating the attempts of Merkel's rivals to capture votes on their platforms. Merkel has often adopted those issues: now, for example, calling for her own version of a minimum wage. It would be implemented differently and vary across the country but still offers new protections.
“The reason the SPD is not winning this election is because Angela Merkel has just shifted to the left. She takes the positions of the SPD,” says Carsten Koschmieder, a political science researcher at Berlin's Free University. “Now she says she wants a minimum wage. Five or ten years ago, it would be ridiculous for the right [to say] they want a minimum wage.”
Merkel has also moved “left” on nuclear energy, vowing to close all the country's reactors down by 2022, a major platform of the Greens. And on the eurocrisis, the biggest foreign policy issue of her eight years in office, she has convinced Germans of all ideologies that her “step-by-step” approach that demands austerity on the part of ailing countries in return for German help is the only path forward.
Still, these issues have been secondary throughout most of the campaign: This is a referendum on Merkel, not on her party's politics.
On the eve of the election, Merkel makes one of her last campaign stops in Stralsund, on a chilly, wind-swept day. Locals pack the harbor, right outside Stralsund's new aquarium, waving “Angie” posters – which the chancellor signs as she heads on stage. She eases into a 30-minute discourse, one that does not electrify the crowd but calms them. At various intervals they politely clap.
“She has warm language, and she is down to earth, just like the people here,” says Maximilian Schwarz, who is studying business administration at the local university. “She is near to the people, not above them.”
This is the main appeal of Merkel, both in Stralsund and across the country, which has garnered her the nickname “Mutti,” or Mummy.
“Merkel uses a language that is very family-oriented, she [portrays herself] as the big mother of the country, and people believe her,” says Konrad Heil, chaplain at the Catholic Church of Stralsund. The SPD has failed to make inroads into this part of the country – The Left, former ex-communists, has a much broader appeal – but the CDU tramples them all.
The Merkel persona has frustrated Ms. Steffen's attempts at local elections. She ran against Merkel in 2009 too – she received 12 percent of the vote, versus 49 percent for Merkel. (The Left got 26 percent.)
On a recent day Steffen, dressed in a brown leather jacket and cream-colored cashmere sweater, walks unassumingly from door-to-door in Greifswald, handing storeowners roses. “A big part of the reason she always wins is that she is Angela Merkel,” she says. “The other names on the ballot aren't so famous. It's not a political decision they are making.”
Peter Burkhard, a resident of Greifswald who is retired, says that Merkel always wins here “because people don't like change.” But he is "tired" of the same. He says Merkel is not just “Mummy” but become almost a pastor of the country. “She gives speeches, and people just obey, without criticizing,” he says.
He knows his criticism, however, is in the minority, at least out here in Merkel country.