Can Europe Make It?

Who says the German election is dull?

Barbie, Mutti Merkel and a monstrous personality cult: a campaign diary ahead of the 22 September German election.

Ranjitha Balasubramanyam
19 September 2013
In Berlin, the biggest campaign poster in German history shows Merkel's signature hand gesture. Flickr/Thomas Dämmrich. Some rights reserved.

In Berlin, the biggest campaign poster in German history shows Merkel's signature hand gesture. Flickr/Thomas Dämmrich. Some rights reserved.

What sort of image comes to mind when Barbie dolls are mentioned? Young, vivacious and slender with an hour-glass figure perhaps? And what sort of real-life women are such dolls likely to be inspired by? Probably models, actresses and pop stars. But how about a middle-aged, broad-framed, no-nonsense German politician in frumpy dresses who’s not exactly known for her sexy looks? Back in 2009, Barbie’s creators saw fit to model a doll after German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a sign that despite her rather austere appearance, Merkel has become a modern German icon.

The Merkel Barbie had a strawberry blond bob and donned a trouser suit. But that’s as far as the likeness went: the new Barbie happily retained her dream figure and standard smile. The “doppelganger” did not exactly grab the headlines but the woman who inspired her creation has quietly gained the confidence of the nation and is powering her way to a third term in office. En passant, she has managed to top the Forbes’ Power Women list six times since 2006 and in 2012, and was ranked the world’s second most powerful person after US President Barack Obama.

Merkel's sense of fashion has been criticized perhaps almost as much as her policies. For instance, many questioned her choice of floor-trailing, flared pants and jacket for a dinner with the Obamas in June this year. But in the run-up to the September 22 general elections, there seems to be some interest in the evolution of Merkel’s personal style. One news website has posted photos tracing the transformation from dumpy ‘’hausfrau’’ (housewife) to ‘’Kanzler (Chancellor) Look’’. Most days, Merkel sports a pair of trousers teamed with her trademark three or four-buttoned jacket – she is so keen on the latter item of clothing that she has one in every conceivable hue.

Bordering on personality cult?

Over the years, efforts by the media to personalize the enigmatic head of government have offered glimpses into a softer side of her character. That's how we learnt that, besides being in charge of Europe’s biggest economy and keeping a tight rein on the troubled eurozone, Merkel, like your average housewife, draws up the weekly shopping list for her chemist husband, enjoys cooking and listening to Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ while she rustles up potato soup for hubby. You’re probably right not to expect to bump into “Angie’’ at a Lady Gaga gig but don’t be surprised if you hear her sing along to the Beatles or Springsteen.

Abroad, some commentators have dubbed her a “Teutonic Margaret Thatcher”, and ailing eurozone states have given her even less flattering names, but Merkel has nevertheless endeared herself to Germans enough to earn the sobriquet of ‘’Mutti’’ (Mom). The makeover happened thanks as much to her firm, no-spin style as to her party strategists, image consultants and the Chancellor’s own willingness to play along. For instance, a new website has been created with a selection of private pictures from the Chancellor’s childhood and youth, with snappy little comments by Angie herself. In the run-up to the election, her Christian Democratic Union party has seemed eager to encourage what critics describe as a growing personality cult around Merkel.

But how much is too much? Imagine being confronted with a mega poster – a third the size of a soccer pitch – featuring, of all things, Merkel’s hands! That’s exactly what Berliners experienced recently. In the hoarding, her hands are held in customary fashion to form a diamond shape. The signature gesture is accompanied by the punchline: “Germany’s future in good hands”. Critics and opposition parties are slamming the image on what is allegedly the largest billboard to be used in German election history, saying the CDU has taken its bid to personalize the campaign too far. One Social Democrat said the poster represented “a monstrous, empty personality cult”.

Mutti 2.0

But Merkel’s campaign team seems far from contrite about exploiting her image as “the mother of the nation” and instead wants to nurture the growing Mutti cult. So why stop at over-sized posters of hands? Surely, the world’s most powerful woman needs her own App? So, cutting-edge technology has been deployed to help Merkel talk directly to voters - if they own a smartphone, that is. When the phone is held up to a Merkel poster, the App instantly recognizes the face and starts playing a video featuring Merkel, creating the illusion that she is talking from the billboard. The Christian Democrats hope the talking-head gimmick will help attract youth and tech-savvy voters in what might end up being a tighter race than initially expected.

And while Merkel has been given her own App, one of her necklaces recently got its own Twitter account. During the sole TV debate between Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her main Social Democrat rival, which proved a rather dull affair, it was Angie’s necklace that stole the show, triggering more discussion among viewers than the Syrian conflict or the eurozone crisis. A Twitter account was quickly set up and the necklace purportedly tweeted cheeky messages like “I give the Chancellor my full backing” and “Do you all want me hanging around your necks for another four years?” during the debate, attracting more than 6,400 followers. One tweet pointed out that the necklace reflected the colors of the German flag and prompted a string of comments about them being in the wrong order.

Eight years ago, at the start of her first term in office, Merkel, who in a previous life had worked as a physicist, often looked ill at ease in her public role and even had to face jibes about her looks and attire. As she once again seeks re-election, Germany’s only female Chancellor looks composed and has even answered questions about her hair and make-up during a radio programme for youth. It is this confidence that her party has cashed in on, helping fashion a personality cult around Merkel.

The creators of the Merkel Barbie, American toy company Mattel, said at the time of the launch in 2009 that the German Chancellor was a modern role model for women around the world. But not many people will know that the original Barbie produced over half a century ago was modeled after a German doll called Bild Lilli.

Are you currently living in Germany or maybe not, but still are a passionate observer of German politics? We'd be very interested in publishing your thoughts  - do drop us a line at europe (at) opendemocracy.net!

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