Of all the political posters and billboards that line the streets of German towns and cities this late summer, the ones most likely to stop commuters in their tracks are those bathed in traffic-light red.
Using a stark colour scheme usually exclusive to the Marxist-Leninist parties on the fringe of the German left, the posters are surprising in more ways than one: in the centre of the picture sits a bald, suited man who looks less like a leftwing rabble-rouser promising you radical change than a middle manager at a regional building society scrutinising your loan application.
The bureaucrat-on-the-barricades act seems to have worked: three weeks before Germany heads to the polls on 26 septiembre, the grey man in the suit, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, has unexpectedly jostled himself into pole position to succeed outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel.
Vice-chancellor in Germany’s coalition government for the last four years, he is currently doing a better job convincing the public that he can be the Merkel continuity candidate than Armin Laschet, the contender fielded by her own party.
Polls published last week show Scholz’s centre-left SPD leading Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union by 3-5 puntos de porcentaje, a position Germany’s oldest existing party last enjoyed when it won federal elections under Gerhard Schröder in 2002.
For much of the past decade, the SPD has looked like a spent force, drained of energy through compromising coalitions with Merkel’s party, lacking in distinctive profile after slaloming from the left to the centre of the political spectrum and back again.
But the current moment suggests that all that can be rectified when you have the good fortune to go up against two less than impressive competitors – and if you can pull together a tight, well-run campaign.
“The SPD has come up with the perfect campaign,” said Frank Stauss, a political communication expert whose agency has previously advised the German Social Democrats and Austria’s conservative ÖVP. "Es 100% in tune with Scholz’s message.”
The CDU only agreed to nominate Laschet as Merkel’s successor in April and its campaign has looked far from tailor-cut around its candidate, and has come across as comically incongruous. One CDU poster has the slogan “So that Germany stays strong” next to a picture of Laschet, a politician seen as more of a liberal compromise builder than a forceful protector (not least through virtue of his surname, lasch medio "lackadaisical” in German).
El partido verde, which has nominated Annalena Baerbock as its first ever chancellor candidate and briefly surged to the top of the polls in May, gives the impression of having lost confidence after the 40-year-old stumbled over plagiarism allegations. Many of its posters depict her in tandem with Green co-leader Robert Habeck, or fall back on Photostock images of young people and families on cargo-bikes.
Only the SPD’s campaign is focused entirely around the man it wants to push into the top seat. Devised by Raphael Brinkert, a sports marketing specialist who has run campaigns for footballers like Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich, it makes a virtue of Scholz’s image as a boring but competent technocrat.
In several posters, the blank-faced former mayor of Hamburg leans back and holds a card with election pledges into the camera: a minimum wage rise, stable pensions, the construction of 400,000 homes a year. Scholz packt das an is the slogan, “Scholz will sort it”. Brinkert, who started working on the campaign in May 2020, has styled his client as an efficient executor, not a politician desperate to be liked. “Sometimes those who dare get lucky,” Brinkert said when asked what politicians could learn from sports marketing.
Arresting posters and catchy slogans on their own don’t win elections, and even within Scholz’s party few doubt the SPD would have continued its decline had the CDU and Greens candidates not proved so gaffe-prone and unpopular with the electorate. “You may as well cite chaos theory,” said one party staffer in explanation of the centre-left surge.
But if posters could swing elections, it would be in Germany, where printed matter still plays an important role. "Ahora, the political poster is undergoing a real renaissance,” said Stauss.
Regulations about political advertising limit the playtime of party TV broadcasts and Stauss said there were too many channels nowadays for any one party to dominate on social media.
“Each year, we say we want to spend less on expensive poster campaigns, and each year we find they still make a difference," él dijo. “Voters still have to get out, and they notice if you don’t show face in the street: they think you’ve given up the fight.”
This will be a vote without precedent in Germany: no previous election in Europe’s largest economy has been fought while the incumbent chancellor is still immensely popular yet not running for re-election. In such a constellation, small gestures can make a big difference for the politicians who are pitching themselves as Merkel’s continuity candidate.
In the first of three televised debates, Scholz gave off such an accurate impression of Merkel’s style – noncommittally rising above the fray while his rivals tore into each other – that most viewers voted him as their winner of the evening and the chancellor herself had to intervene the following day to clarify there was a “huge difference for the future of Germany” between the Social Democrat and herself.
In coming weeks, Scholz will probably do more to remind voters that his tenure as finance minister and vice-chancellor gives him the kind of international clout that his conservative and ecological rivals lack.
En el camino de la campaña, the 63-year-old has got the loudest cheers when mentioning plans for a global minimum corporate tax rate – a scheme Scholz rightly claims to have kicked off with his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire.
Sceptics say the SPD’s lead will start to evaporate once voters have had more time to scrutinise the policies behind the billboard slogans, as it did with the Green party and the CDU.
The conservatives have over the last week mounted a concerted campaign against a “leftward drift” they foresee if Scholz were to forge a coalition with the Greens and leftwing Die Linke – an option the centre-left has so far declined to rule out for tactical reasons. Scholz’s supporters say their opponents have already missed the chance to turn the tide. As a result of the pandemic, 40-50% of the electorate are expected to vote by mail this year. Postal ballots have been with voters for two weeks.