Germany

Angela Merkel wows voters on opponent's home turf with predictability

Everything is fine, Merkel is here. That's her party's message as election season gets underway. That message is only half true, as DW's Kathleen Schuster found out at her first major election appearance in Dortmund.

Merkel bei CDA Veranstaltung in Dortmund (picture-alliance/dpa/I. Fassbender)

The road to the CDU rally in Dortmund is dotted with a handful of disappointed, angry voters. Twenty protest quietly in the drizzle, trying to grab the attention of those who are here to see a politician they say is ruining Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"If everyone who's dissatisfied with Merkel were to show up, this place would be overflowing," Hans-Otto Dinse says, a half-circle of similarly minded protesters building around him to listen as he gives DW an interview.

Dinse used to belong to Chancellor Merkel's party. His wife's sign - unfurled again and again for each new passerby - shows their new political status: "Frau Merkel, you'll never again get our votes."

AfD supporters demonstrate against Angela Merkel in Dortmund (DW/K. Schuster)

Hans Dinse and his wife (pictured left) want Merkel to know that her refugee policy drove them away from the CDU

Now, they belong to the AfD, the party billed by critics as populist and far-right for its anti-refugee rhetoric. The party denies this depiction of its interests.

Read more: 10 things you need to know about the AfD

Divisive policy

Merkel has built a reputation as a sly politician: ever-patient, ever-silent, biding her time until political storms blow over. She also has a reputation of moving her center-right party to the left with pro-environmental policies and the legalization of same-sex marriage. But it's the refugee policy that her ex-supporters hate the most.

"I was a foreigner not all that long ago," Wlodzimiew Zrodlowski tells DW.  A Polish political refugee, now a German citizen, Zrodlowski says the refugees in Germany are just migrants.

"It's in effect a Muslim invasion. It's called colonization. Conquering through colonization. Nothing more."

A fellow AfD member nods along, recording every second of the interview on a matchbox-size camera. AfD supporters often accuse the press of lying.

Merkel goes after opponent's turf

Inside, nearly 1,000 CDU supporters and undecided voters listen intently as the incumbent begins to speak. With more spring in her step and energy in her voice than voters are accustomed to seeing from the demure leader, Merkel lists off the plans that will help this demographic.

Visiting Dortmund as her first official campaign stop with six weeks to go until elections is no coincidence.

Dortmund used to be Germany's largest steel producer and the beating heart of the country's center-left Social Democratic Party. But, as in neighboring industrial cities, the SPD steadily lost support through the 1970s and 1980s as the region faced a steel crisis and then coal mine closures.

Merkel at CDU event in Dortmund (picture-alliance/dpa/I.Fassbender)

The sign behind Merkel reads: "For a Germany where we love living and live well"

Dwindling challenge?

In state elections in May, the SPD sustained a further loss of support, leaving it with only 31 percent of the vote. Support from the CDU meanwhile rose from 26 to 33 percent, subsequently shutting the SPD out of the state's coalition government.

The SPD is Merkel's coalition partner. Its front-runner, Martin Schulz, is also the only politician who threatens to unseat Merkel - even though, according to a recent Infratest dimap poll, 52 percent of those surveyed would vote for her and only 30 percent for Schulz. But in a year of uncertainty, she's taking no chances.

Each campaign promise by Merkel draws thunderous applause: full employment, more money for apprentices, more options for working mothers, more help for the computer illiterate (like her, she says, to affectionate laughter from the crowd).

And, of course, holding the automobile executives accountable for Dieselgate, while protecting jobs of the backbone of industry.

Read more: German confidence in automakers and politicians plummets

Better safe than sorry

Curiosity satisfied, chancellor seen, the Saturday afternoon crowd from this industrial town makes a beeline for the door once Merkel has left the podium.

While some of these concerns could woo the votes needed to guarantee her a fourth term, they bear too close a resemblance to other parties' campaigns to clinch her a win.

Several in the crowd like her commitment to digitization, others her commitment to clamp down on Dieselgate. But, in a time of uncertainty, especially considering this week's altercation between Trump and North Korea, they say Merkel offers something no one else seems to: a level head.

"I'm not naive, I don't think everything will be fine just because Angela Merkel is here," Annelie Brücke tells DW. "I have my issues with Schulz who actually comes across as quite nice, but he's too impulsive."

"Merkel is the calmer of the two."

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