Widely expected to win a third four-year term, her agenda while campaigns is primarily national

Angela Merkel shows up right on time outside the sun-splashed old town hall here. The 59-year-old Chancellor works the crowd of 5,000, gives three or four waves from the stage, then settles in for local small talk and — despite hecklers — a 30-minute stump speech. She mixes folksy expressions with statistics and worldly observations, and assures listeners that their affairs, at home and farther afield, are safe in her hands.

“Successful together”, proclaim posters of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union. “Germany is strong, and should remain so,” says another. “Stay cool and vote for the chancellor!” urge T-shirts, emblazoned, like the outsize campaign poster at Berlin’s main railway station, with her trademark diamond-shape hand gesture.

Europe and the world may scour Germany’s election campaign in vain for clues about what the troubled Continent’s greatest power intends for its future. But the euro crisis, and Germany’s role in leading Europe out of it, are hardly mentioned. Ms. Merkel, who is widely expected to win a third four-year term, has given no hint of major changes for the euro or the European Union, or any change in course from policies seen as harsh by Southern Europeans and overly cautious by the financial markets.

Instead, all politics being local, the rest of Europe gets about five minutes in her stump speech, which stays closer to home. As election day next Sunday nears, Ms. Merkel is warning her supporters against complacency, invoking a “rude awakening” if the votes do not suffice, despite her personal popularity, to build a desirable coalition in Germany’s complex parliamentary system.

Mr. Steinbrück, a skilled Finance Minister in Ms. Merkel’s first government, from 2005 to 2009, has slipped up repeatedly after declaring his candidacy last fall. But he has done better since their only televised debate, on September 1, and became the talk of the country on Friday after the cover of a newspaper’s magazine showed him gesturing with his middle finger.

Opinion was split on whether the 66-year-old Social Democrat was teasing and being bold, or simply not behaving like someone seeking to become the leader of more than 80 million Germans and Europe’s strongest economy.

Ms. Merkel — ever cautious, ever concerned with keeping her options open, ever imperious to her critics — would not be caught in such a pose.

She is more like a patient aunt, alternately stern or smiling, able to wait until quarrelsome charges, be they rival politicians at home or European leaders haggling in Brussels, calm down and agree on how to proceed.

When she does talk of Europe, her overwhelming concern is that it stay competitive, and Germany strong. Sparpolitik, or austerity, has virtually vanished from her public speeches. Referring to helping weaker European partners, she speaks of “solidarity” and “taking responsibility for oneself” as “two sides of the same coin.”

Even when her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, briefly caused a campaign stir in August by saying that Greece would need a third rescue package sometime in the next two years, she refused to be more specific or to say whether Mr. Schäuble had cleared his comments with her first.

At her rallies, the euro is praised as the foundation of Germany’s prosperity, while it is emphasised that a united Europe has had almost 70 years of peace — and, she says, “the older ones here know what that means”. “Freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, all that is Europe,” Ms. Merkel said in Düsseldorf last weekend as she fired up 7,000 supporters for the final days of campaigning. “When you look around the world, you know what we have.”

Ms. Merkel’s emphasis on freedom may reflect human rights priorities ingrained by a life under communism. She saw that system collapse — an experience she does not want to risk repeating by doling out German money to shore up ill-structured European unity or missing opportunities outside Europe where, an adviser notes, 90 per cent of global growth is occurring.

“That is the main task,” he said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorised to publicly discuss policy.

European unity

John C. Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and a close observer of German affairs for more than four decades, sees in Ms. Merkel a Chancellor who “knows more or less how far she can go with the German public” in terms of propping up European unity.

She “obviously has more sophisticated thoughts than she expresses” and yet “no internal commitment” to the European Union (EU), Mr. Kornblum said. “Her basic goals are national.”

It is Germany’s paradox that its European neighbours and American friends are wary of both its dominance and its reluctance to lead. As the fourth-largest economy in the world, known for its strong midsize companies that out-engineer competitors, Germany must look out for fresh trade opportunities. Yet that swiftly generates fear that Germans, seeing European markets shrink, will stake out richer ground in the United States, Latin America and Asia.

For her part, Mr. Merkel is clearly fascinated by foreign travel. As an East German, she could only explore the Soviet bloc and would have been permitted to go west for good only as a 60-year-old pensioner.

She nurtures export opportunities; phalanxes of business figures have accompanied her on six trips to China, where she always lingers long enough to explore a different province outside Beijing.

Ms. Merkel is also a keen observer — her eyes scan every room and interlocutor — and she soaks up knowledge that peppers her speeches.

“The world is not sleeping,” she warns, while noting Germany’s shrinking place in it: If you divide 100 people based on world population, she notes, “only a bit more than one would be a German”.

— New York Times News Service

  • Europe scours election campaign in vain for clues

  • Merkel nurtures export opportunities