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Elections

Campaigning in rubber boots

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in the German flood areas where she promised swift help. Some politicians have profited from such natural disasters in the past, and Merkel will want to do the same.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) inspects a flooded street near the Elbe river in the east German town of Pirna June 4, 2013. Pictured at left is Saxony State Premier Stanislaw Tillich. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Hochwasser Elbe Merkel

How much political campaigning can a flood area take? This was a question many observers asked when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the areas hit hardest by the floods in the German states of Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria on Tuesday (04.07.2013).

Merkel helps fill sandbags
Photo: Arno Burgi/dpa

The hands-on chancellor: a thin line between show and real sympathy

Surrounded by TV cameras, the chancellor gave the impression of a person who wanted to help without being intrusive. There were pictures of Merkel in Passau's historic city center with mud-shoveling soldiers, Merkel shaking flood victims' hands, and Merkel filling sand sacks to the soundtrack of clicking cameras.

The communications expert and PR strategist Klaus Kocks says that such behavior is not really much help; Merkel is not just chancellor, but the leader of the Christian Democrats, and with less than four months to go before national and Bavarian elections, it's all about campaigning of course. The politicians could even get in the way of the emergency services. "People's distress is exploited," Kocks says. "Ever since Noah and the Flood, flooding has been used as a symbol for an immediate threat, and a good opportunity to present oneself as a savior."

German army Bundeswehr soldiers clear the streets from mud before the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the south-eastern Bavarian city of Passau, about 200 km (124 miles) north-east of Munich June 4, 2013. Torrential rain in the south and south-east of Germany caused heavy flooding over the weekend, forcing people to evacuate their homes. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANY - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Soldiers had to sweep the flooded streets of Passau before the chancellor walked by

'Unfortunately, voters are like that'

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder offered a good example to his successor. There were floods on the Elbe when he was running for reelection in 2002. His government coalition was trailing in the polls, so he showed up in black rubber boots and a green rain-jacket, looking like a man of the people.

** FILE ** German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, left, and Saxony state governor Georg Milbradt wear rubber boots as they walk in the mud of a flood-striken street in Grimma, eastern Germany, in this Aug. 14 2002 file photo. Three years ago, a beleaguered Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder donned rubber boots to head the fight against disastrous floods in east Germany, railed against war in Iraq and rode to an unexpected knife-edge victory with the help of eastern support. A raft of unpopular reforms later, Schroeder now faces a much tougher sell in eastern towns like Magdeburg, a drab, economically depressed state capital, ahead of Sept. 18 national elections. (AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz)

Schröder in rubber boots on the trail to re-election in 2002

Klaus Kocks thinks that this appearance was the decisive factor in Schröder's re-election. According to Kocks, it was obvious that he was exploiting the cultural myth of Saint Christropher, who carried the baby Jesus across a flooded river. Unfortunately, that's how voters are, the provocative PR-man says.

A good example of how not to do it comes from the United States, where, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina became one of the lowest points of George W. Bush's administration. The President only interrupted his vacation three days after the storm had begun, making him look like a bad crisis manager.

His successor Barack Obama got it right, fighting against tropical storm Sandy just before his reelection. From the very start of the crisis, Obama was in the affected areas, and his wife organized charity events for children which won a lot of media attention. Just days before the vote, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was relegated to the background.

Klaus Kocks believes that this fate could also befall the current Social Democratic candidate for chancellor. After all, "we expect help from the people that we entrust with power."

Opposition candidate in trouble

Steinbrück among the students
Photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa

Steinbrück, far away from the flood victims, talks to students in Berlin

The opposition Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, doesn't have political power right now and is forced to cede the stage to the Chancellor. While Merkel tours the disaster areas, Steinbrück has to carry on with business as usual. He talks foreign policy with Berlin students instead of chatting with those affected by the flood.

Of course he has a few words of encouragement for the victims first: "As someone who has lived in a house by the river Rhine for a long time, I, too, have learned first-hand what it means to have your house flooded and how you have to deal with that." He wished the flood victims the strength to deal with the catastrophe, and advocated quick and unbureaucratic assistance, which he himself cannot supply. That comes off as contrived.

Kocks knows, of course, that natural disasters are an opportunity for those with the power and not for those in opposition. But he says that the brittle compassion that Steinbrück has displayed does not do any favors to a large party which wants to be in government.

"That's miserable, those are cold, empty statements, with all the appeal of an old cash register," Kocks complains. "Steinbrück's campaign started off badly, and, to everyone's surprise, it's got even worse." The candidate has lost his last chance by failing to visit the affected areas: "I believe the election has been decided today."

Using the flood for political goals

Klaus Kocks
Photo: Karlheinz Schindler
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Kocks says it's a show, but a necessary show

Other political parties also want a slice of the media pie, and are looking for something to say about the flood disaster. The Left Party calls for a temporary rise in public debt in the face of the immense damage. The Green Party wants long-term investments in sustainable flood protection: they don't want more dikes, but renaturing of rivers and designated flooding areas. And the FDP, the junior coalition partner, says the state bank KfW should give additional money to the flood victims.

Those three demands were made in Berlin while the chancellor was in the disaster area and so they just vanished in the avalanche of chancellor photos from Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria. The head of the FDP's parliamentary group, Rainer Brüderle, warned against "political tourism" to flooded towns. But PR-strategist Klaus Kocks believes this "orchestrated reality show" is indispensable: "Someone who shows sympathy with the flood victims right there in the flood will be awarded with sweeping political success."

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