A Visit from the Kanzlerin

Waiting for the program to begin.  

"Die Kanzlerin kommt."  So spake the numerous posters hanging throughout the city, letting Fuldaers know Angela Merkel would be visiting Fulda on September 19. As soon as I saw the notices, I knew I would be going -- as someone who has always been very interested in politics, especially in other countries, the chance to see Germany's prime minister speak three days before the national election was too good to pass up.

Around 2:45, I started to make my way to the Universitätsplatz in Fulda, which is an open square within the inner city. The program was set to begin at 3:30, so I wanted to get there a little early to scope things out and hopefully get a good vantage point. I ended up standing against the rail separating those with tickets (i.e., CDU party members) from the rest of the masses who were just curious to see what the chancellor had to say, so I had a decent view of the action.

Having seen Obama speak once before at a Labor Day event in Milwaukee, I was curious how this event would compare. Unsurprisingly, this was a much more modest affair. The seating area, reserved for those with tickets, could probably hold a few hundred people. In front of that was a small-ish stage (at least it looked kind of small from where I stood) with a large TV screen to the right to broadcast the action to the people in the back. Based on what I've read, the entire crowd was estimated to have been about 5,000 people. The whole production was high-quality, but it was nowhere near the spectacle that seems to accompany American presidents when they speak.

The security at the event was also nowhere near the levels I had seen for presidential events. There was some sort of security checkpoint for people entering the ticketed area, but as far as I could see that only consisted of people opening up their bags or purses to show the inside contents. No metal detectors or pat-downs, and absolutely no security checkpoints for the non-ticketed folks like me (though of course there were plenty of police officers roaming around and monitoring the crowd from nearby buildings). Which isn't to say that was a bad thing, because I certainly never felt unsafe, but it was an interesting difference from what we are used to in the US.

One striking aspect of the crowd itself was how old everyone was. I saw very few people under the age of 40 in among the ticketed crowd (meaning, there weren't many young party members in attendance, if said young party members exist at all), and the numbers weren't significantly greater among the rest of the crowd -- I got the feeling that the young people who were there were a lot like me, in the sense of just wanting to see what the whole thing was about. This isn't particularly surprising since the CDU (Merkel's party) has never been terribly popular among the youth (being a more centrist party, whereas the youth tend to vote leftist), but the visual demonstration of this at the event was hard to miss.

The event featured multiple political speakers, with the various local CDU candidates speaking first to warm up the crowd. There was also a band that provided musical interludes and which tried, largely in vain, to inject some pep into the crowd -- participation in their rendition of "We are Family" was lackluster at best, although there was some mildly enthusiastic placard-waving to accompany "Simply the Best" (dedicated to Merkel).

Angela Merkel speaking from the podium. Note all the grey hair in the crowd....

I found the overall structure of the event to be extremely different from what you would see in the US, though these differences make sense in the context of Germany's political system. When Merkel finally made her way to the stage (first navigating from the back of the crowd all the way up to the stage, something a US president would also probably never do because of security concerns), she was not necessarily treated as the main event. By that I mean, she stood on the stage alongside several other party leaders, and she didn't even speak initially. There was some quick banter on stage, but then another prominent CDU member, Horst Seehofer began speaking (Seehofer is the minister-president of Bayern/Bavaria). Merkel then took the podium to speak, but when she was done two others spoke after her.

At a political event in the US, you would never have additional speakers come to the podium after the president speaks, because that would imply he (or she) was not the most significant figure in the room. Moreover, at a public event like this one was, there's a good chance a portion of the crowd would leave after the president finished speaking, since that's who they (presumably) came to see. But at this event in Germany, almost no one left early, nor did people seem especially antsy that the event kept going after Merkel spoke (granted, she did stay on stage, so it's not as though she left the event completely).

In a way, this setup makes sense, since Germany is a parliamentary system and thus the success of parties is just as important as the success of individuals. The point of this event was not to convince people to vote for Angela Merkel (as it would be in the US), since of course you can't vote for Merkel -- you have to vote for the CDU as a whole and hope they secure enough seats in the Bundestag to elect her as prime minister (which, as we know now, was fairly easily done). Thus, if the whole event had been centered around promoting Merkel and treating her as the whole reason you came, it would diminish the emphasis on the party and why you should be invested not just in the chancellor but in the CDU as a whole.

So overall, it's hard to make comparisons between the German prime minister and an American president because the systems just aren't set up for a good comparison. Regardless, I enjoyed the chance to get a better understanding of the German political system and to learn more about Angela Merkel and her politics -- straight from the horse's mouth. 

If you want to see more pictures from the event, check out this gallery from the newspaper in Fulda. You can even see a picture of me at the event here, in the 41st picture! I'm the one in the red fleece clutching a camera (in case you have no idea what I look like).

After leaving the speech, I stumbled upon a much smaller rally that was in favor of gay rights. It was a counter-protest of sorts, since Merkel and her party have not been particularly active or supportive when it comes to gay rights (though as a whole Germany is fairly progressive in this area). It was also a good reminder that Angela Merkel is not as revered in Germany as many non-Germans seem to think -- certainly, about 40 percent of the population backed her party in the national elections yesterday, but that's still 60 percent of the population that threw their allegiances elsewhere. It will be interesting to see exactly how the dust settles and who the CDU chooses to ally themselves with in order to secure a comfortable majority in the parliament. 

The post-Merkel pro-gay rally I stumbled upon. The guy holding the sign in the middle ("Love whomever you want") is wearing a Merkel mask.