Angela Merkel’s heartland is Germany’s quiet, hard-working farming country
People in the rural west see the Chancellor and her Christian Democratic Union as the best defender of local interests
A local trader throws sweets to parade onlookers before the 714th annual Stoppelmarkt, northern Germany’s biggest fair in the town of Vechta, a stronghold for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union: Photograph: Derek Scally
A traditional carousel at the 714th annual Stoppelmarkt, which draws 800,000 people in six days to the northwestern German town of Vechta. Photograph: Derek Scally
In faraway Berlin, people call it the “slurry belt” because they’ve heard that 10 times as many pigs live here as people. But to understand Angela Merkel’s decade-long happy marriage with the Germans, you need to understand this conservative, rural region and small towns such as Vechta.
It’s a sunny summer afternoon and Vechta is in a state of high excitement. It’s the first day of the 717th annual Stoppelmarkt, northern Germany’s answer to the Oktoberfest. Locals in their finery strut past high-gabled houses and lamp-posts laden with flower baskets.
I’ve just come to look around, but word has got out fast. Town fathers are so delighted to have an Irish journalist in their midst that they insist I join them marching in their parade of tractors and floats, led by a bright red fire engine. I keep well out of the way as they toss sweets to delighted children on the sidelines.
The parade is a good-natured, low-key affair: local communities and clubs have come dressed as zombies and aliens. There’s even a Strawberry Harvest Queen. Onlookers join the parade at its rear and march to the field outside town where, over the next six days, more than 800,000 people will drink beer, eat sausages and catch up with old friends.
A long way from Berlin
Looking out over the sausage stands, beer tents and flashing rides of the Stoppelmarkt, local Bundestag MP Franz-Josef Holzencamp says the people in Vechta are a “people of doers”.
The politician’s word carries weight here: in the 2013 federal election the 55-year-old pulled in 66 per cent of the direct vote, the highest in the country, higher even than Angela Merkel’s 56 per cent.
Holzencamp has been an MP for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the Bundestag as long as Angela Merkel has been chancellor. And in that decade he has learned just how much his voters and Angela Merkel are on the same wavelength.
“Merkel is the kind of politician that chimes with people here, she’s unpretentious, hard-working and decent,” said Holzencamp.
Vechta’s mayor, Helmut Gels, agrees. “What people respect in her is that she views power as an obligation to be there for others, not just where she sees gain for herself,” said Gels, also of the CDU. “Everyone here feels represented by the CDU because of politics that marries tradition with progress.”
These songs of praise are interesting given how, on paper at least, the German chancellor and this region have little in common: Merkel is a Protestant east German divorcee living in Berlin; Vechta is a rural west German Catholic idyll. But a quarter century after unification, people here see Merkel as one of their own and her Christian Democratic Union the best defender of local interests.
It’s been this way through Oldenburger Münsterland’s transformation from a postwar agrarian poorhouse to a thriving region with a €10 billion-a-year food industry employing 17,000 people. With a population of 31,000, Vechta is still growing. Young people find work in local plastics and bioenergy companies, and a luxurious complaint – a housing shortage – means Vechta is more expensive than nearby Bremen.
So while Merkel’s CDU struggles in big cities such as Berlin and Munich, it remains strong and deeply rooted in Vechta – a town the way many wish Germany could be: quiet, modest, prosperous, with a healthy dose of local pride. The region has boomed, says Gert Stuke, president of the local chamber of commerce, by practising what others preach: vocational training and close ties between the town hall, businesses and the local university.
“Everything that makes Germany strong is here – we’re flexible and innovative,” said Stuke, a 50-year veteran of the Stoppelmarkt.
‘Work hard and party’
Originally a cattle and horse show, like Killorglin’s Puck Fair, the market has grown to a massive party that fills 22 soccer pitches and attracts all ages. “We work hard the rest of the year but we also know how to party, so there’s no work done here now,” said local man Timo (22).
Everything is open for discussion here, from the local sports results to the Greek crisis. Last week’s Bundestag vote in favour of a third aid package has taken Athens off the agenda, at least until September’s election.
“But what people here don’t understand is they’re giving loans to Greece, ask for some guarantees and are being cursed for their efforts,” said Stephan Siemer, an MP in the state parliament in Hanover.
For local political scientist Dr Martin Schwarz, CDU success in places such as Vechta follows the tradition-rooted approach to politics of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. “Burke believed there was a level over which a politician has responsibility, but also a transcendental level that is beyond them,” he said. “In that way as a politician I am not myself called, I am the one who acts and my actions must be justified.”
But for all the popularity of the CDU, he sees a danger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in her failure to adequately convince people here that ongoing loans to Greece are a good idea.
“People respect that Merkel is representing European thoughts and positions in this debate,” said Schwarz. “But when push comes to shove, people expect her to take a national position. We are experiencing an increasing nationalisation of public opinion.”