The Likable Winner versus the Competent Loser: Candidate Images and the German Election of 2002

By Anderson, Christopher J.; Brettschneider, Frank | German Politics and Society, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Likable Winner versus the Competent Loser: Candidate Images and the German Election of 2002


Anderson, Christopher J., Brettschneider, Frank, German Politics and Society


Although the German constitution does not provide for the direct election of the head of the executive branch by the people, the preeminent position of the federal chancellor has long tempted commentators to describe the German political system as a "chancellor democracy." (1) Based on this characterization, one might be tempted to assume that the German election of 2002 was therefore about electing a chancellor. To be sure, if voters could have voted for the chancellor directly in 2002, Gerhard Schroder would have easily defeated Edmund Stoiber. Yet, despite public opinion polis that never once showed the challenger outpolling the chancellor throughout the entire election year, the election turned out to be a cliffhanger.

What, then, was the influence of the chancellor candidates on the behavior of voters? Put differently, does the close result mean that Chancellor Schroder helped eke out an election win for an otherwise hapless SPD? After all, the massive flooding along the Elbe offered him an opportunity to demonstrate his vigor and present himself as a savior to countrymen in distress only weeks before they were asked to cast their ballots for the new government. Did Schroder, literally speaking, surf back to power on the waves of the flood of the century? And did his categorical no to German participation in a possible attack by the United States on Iraq make the difference in the end by stirring passions in order to mobilize his party's core voters?

At the outset, these appear to be reasonable conjectures and interpretations of what happened in 2002. At the same time, it can plausibly be argued that the election outcome was not so much the chancellor's victory, but that Stoiber, the chancellor's Bavarian challenger, cost the CDU/CSU the election. After all, Stoiber was widely portrayed in the media as an awkward politician who lacked both eloquence and charisma. (2) Stoiber, simply put, was a man with the reputation of a wooden policy-wonk who was, in the end, unable to shake the image of a conservative politician from the south. Viewed from this perspective, it is conceivable that the election could have brought a change in government if the CDU/CSU had nominated a different candidate for chancellor.

While the election campaign initially was mostly focused on issues, Schroder as early as May focused the voting decision very simply as "him or me" ("der oder ich". As such, from the SPD and Schroder's perspective, the election was presented first and foremost as a choice between the two candidates. In contrast, the Christian Democrats presented Stoiber alongside a team of political leaders, composed of a mix of established and new faces. In the end, if we are to believe the pundits and their initial interpretations of the election outcome, the media friendly show talent Schroder beat the wooden issue politician Stoiber. Even if this is the case, why, then, did the SPD not appear to benefit more from Schroder's popularity? Alternatively, does this mean that the SPD won the election because of Schroder and that a federal election can be won by staging a candidate-focused production?

Personalization of Electoral Politics in Germany: Facts and Fiction

Portrayals of the "Americanization" of German elections axe popular among many analysts of contemporary German politics. Americanization means that politics is devoid of content, that issues are increasingly pushed aside, and that important issues and debates get lost. Instead, elections have become pure beauty contests, designed by handlers, spin-doctors, and professional image-makers, and packaged in ways that are easily communicated via mass media. Democratic theorists would contend that such an increasing depoliticization, if it in fact exists, can be a danger for democracy. While these portrayals are popular, are they therefore also correct? We argue below that the claim that German elections are increasingly candidate-focused and personalized is arguable at best.

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