To understand Angela Merkel’s appeal, watch her in action in her Baltic coast constituency.
A windswept place of flat empty fields and dark wooden windmills, she’s been an MP here since 1990. She won half the total direct vote here last time around, despite the pressures of office is a regular sight at local events.
Ahead of tomorrow's federal election, and a likely third term, Merkel asked a local campaign manager what was most popular with people at the rally stand: the pamphlets? The postcards? No: The yellow supermarket trolley token.
“Oh I need a token too, can I have one?” asks the German leader. “Look! it even has my name on it.”
After eight years in office – four battling an existential crisis in the euro zone –Angela Merkel appears delighted that it's not her politics that are of interest to voters but a plastic disc bearing her name. Content is not king in the German campaign, but Merkel is unquestionably queen.
Everything is lovely
Under a sapphire sky, turned out in a wine-coloured blazer and sculpted, ash-brown hair, Merkel mingles on the market square of Ribnitz-Damgarten, a pretty coastal town. After chatting with a smoked fish salesman at his stand, arguably the most powerful woman in the world mounts a pocket-sized, foot-high stage for a short speech. Barely started, she stops short and orders a young man to stop pushing his way to the front.
“Hold your ground,” she urges an elderly lady beside him. “Use your umbrella to defend yourself.”
Back to her speech, issues boiled down for local ears, she says her opponent’s tax proposals for top earners will demotivate entrepreneurs from creating jobs, robbing young people and “our area” of a future. Calls for a statutory minimum wage of €8.50 are a bad idea for the same reason, she says, “because I know people here with B&Bs, worried they can’t afford to pay that and stay in business”.
In her speech, like most of her campaign, Europe and the euro crisis are kept on a faint pilot light: the EU is a guarantor of peace, she says, and it is in our economic interest as an exporting nation that the single currency survives. But no country can expect German assistance unless they fix what isn't working.
“Otherwise we’d have shown solidarity and gone down together,” says Merkel.
The 300-strong audience looks on, happy with what they’re hearing.
"We have no one better at the moment," says Maria Willendorf (61). "She takes care of things, I've never heard anyone say otherwise. And she's calm in herself, we like that."
Speech over, Merkel signs autograph cards for half an hour and fields questions from a swarm of supplicants on everything from college fees to property disputes. How long is her day? Does she have a private life? “7am to 11pm. I try to keep time for myself, otherwise you’d go crazy.”
An elderly lady touches Merkel’s blazer arm and, briefly, broaches the euro crisis. “I think you’re right about the trade-off of reforms for solidarity,” she says, and shuffles off.
No one asks about record youth unemployment, climate change or why bank debt was socialised. Anyone with a tricky remark gets an autograph card and a one-word reply: "Schön" – lovely. On this sunny morning in a pretty northern German market square, everything is lovely.
Standing beside Merkel, her success here is less as a politician with clear policies than as a political attraction with an impressive aura. The powerful visitor from Berlin exudes an apparent ordinariness that elicits gazes of adoring servility from her voters. And so, after running a campaign where issues were secondary to personality, tomorrow's poll is less a decision about Germany's political direction but whether voters hand Angela I back her crown.
Looking on, local man Gerhard Krull attributes the German leader's success to her promise to solve problems and spare people the details.
"It's strange: we Germans are cautious about strong leader figures yet are drawn to Merkel's Mutti [mammy] image," he said. Drifting off, he laughs as he recalls a long-forgotten rhyme: "Was Mutti sagt, wird gemacht"– what mammy says, will be done. Europe: take note.