German elections: Merkel still mighty but gripes grow in bellwether village
As Angelika Schneide pushed her trolley down the ice-cream aisle in Haßloch’s supermarket, she hovered over an unfamiliar flavour. “This is the fun of shopping here,” Schneide, 46, said, putting a tub in her trolley. “We get to try everything out.”
Haßloch, a large village in the south-western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, enjoys the title of “most average place in Germany”. Using a list of criteria – including age, income, education and marital status – statisticians determined years ago that its 21,000 inhabitants were broadly representative of the whole of . In the mid-1980s, the Society for Consumer Research (GfK) picked it as the place to test out new products.
About two-thirds of the population are said to be signed up as official testers, in return for vouchers or entries to prize draws. If Schneide is anything to go by, Haßlochers lap up their status as Germany’s decision-makers.
“It’s quite something to know when I do the weekly shop I’m effectively making decisions on behalf of millions of other Germans,” she said.
The GfK theory is that if it sells here, it will sell elsewhere in Germany. If a product flops during a trial run, it will be likely to be consigned to the dustbin of marketing history.
The representative behaviour of Haßloch’s inhabitants is also viewed as a useful gauge of how Germans might behave when the country goes to the polls on 24 September.
The election has been widely interpreted as a referendum on Angela Merkel’s 12-year chancellorship, and all polls so far predict a secure win for her Christian Democrats.
Schneide’s stance was nonchalant. “There is not much of a decision to make, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “Merkel has my backing.”
“We can’t complain. We’ve almost paid off our mortgage, my husband’s job is secure, the kids are studying. We count the pennies, but so does everyone.”
Nearby, in the , Julia Willeke was having two foxes etched on to her thigh. She said she had not made up her mind yet who to vote for as the election was too far away.
Willeke’s biggest concern was the future of her diesel car, upon which she relies to get to her job as a lab technician. The recent has shaken her trust in politicians and industry. “Now I’d like to know who’s going to pay for the mistakes that were made,” she said. “I don’t see why it should be me.”
According to Ulla Koob, a retired businesswoman who runs a weekly soup kitchen, loneliness was a hidden issue in Haßloch.
“There are lots of lonely people here. It is not really something that’s discussed by politicians. I wish it was.”
Koob said stability would be uppermost in her thoughts on 24 September, which is why she values Merkel. “She exudes calm. She doesn’t make any hasty decisions. She gets on well with France, she’s good at working things out with England. She’s smart enough to let Trump do the talking. She brings equilibrium at a time of uncertainty.”
Among Koob’s team of volunteers at the soup kitchen there was little in the way of support for Merkel’s Social Democratic rival, Martin Schulz. “He reached his peak too soon. His slogan is more social justice, but it’s not really clear that he’s very different to Merkel,” one volunteer said.
As is the case across much of Germany, a typical Haßlocher takes pride in belonging to a society. There are 104 in the village, and Peter Stuhlfauth, who was born here, belongs to no less than five, including a football club, a theatre group and a neighbourhood watch group. “I love life in Haßloch,” he said. “And the thing is, I’d really like it to stay like it is.”
Stuhlfauth brought up an issue that has dominated much of the international media coverage of Germany in recent years: Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders to refugees and migrants in September 2015.
As the local police officer with responsibility for dealing with burglaries, Stuhlfauth said he had seen first-hand the negative effect of the policy.
“They [burglaries] are mainly carried out by bands of eastern Europeans, and we’ve had 15 already this year, not including garden shed break-ins. We have a clear-up rate of just one in seven. Of those we catch, most just get let off with a caution.”
Despite coming from a family of Social Democrats, Stuhlfauth joined Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2015, and has become the anti-immigrant party’s local representative.
The party’s popularity soared to almost 19% in local elections in March 2016. Nationally, it is polling at 8% and is expected to enter the Bundestag for the first time in September.
“I cannot be labelled a rabble-rouser for wanting criminals to be locked up and our borders properly controlled,” he said. “It’s what most sensible people want.”
Another of Stuhlfauth’s gripes can be heard repeatedly across the country: the state of Germany’s infrastructure. “We used to laugh at the standard of Poland’s roads,” he said. “Now it’s the other way round.”
The Badepark is a family leisure centre with saunas, swimming pools and water slides on the north-western edge of Haßloch. Built in the 1950s, it became a local symbol of Germany’s postwar economic success, but is in a poor state of repair and in need of an estimated €8.5m (£8m) overhaul.
Sitting on the grass by the outdoor pool, Jannette Schule, 63, said: “It seems possible for Angela to find money to feed, clothe and house millions of refugees, but not to fix our Badepark.”
Schule pronounced the chancellor’s name as “Enjella”, in the typical Rhineland-Palatinate accent. She was chided by her 18-year-old granddaughter Janine.
“You shouldn’t mix up the two issues, Granny. Anyway, taking in refugees has made us a better country.” Janine is due to vote for the first time but has not decided how.
Haßloch’s politicians insist they are working on a solution for the Badepark. “If someone feels the problems when he opens his or her front door, they won’t be thinking as far as Berlin or beyond when they put their cross in the box, but much closer to home,” said Jürgen Vogt, the chairman of the Christian Democrats in Haßloch.
Shortly after the regional elections, Vogt joined forces with his Social Democrat counterpart, Dieter Schuhmacher, in an attempt to win back voters from the AfD. Dividing Haßloch up street by street, they knocked on doors to gauge local opinion.
“Of course some people want to talk about Berlin, Brussels or Trump in Washington, but mostly the conversation came back to Haßloch, and what people perceive is going right or wrong here,” said Schuhmacher.
Missing sprinkler heads on watering cans in the graveyard, the efficacy of a tractor introduced to tend the bike paths around the village and a project to boost the bee population are among subjects being debated at a local level.
Two years ago the refugee crisis dominated the political agenda in Germany, leading to predictions that Merkel would fall for allowing in almost a million newcomers within a year. But despite the efforts of the AfD, it is unlikely to loom large in this election campaign.
Like the other asylum seekers who found themselves in Haßloch under a national distribution system, the Kuder family from Aleppo were provided with a house and garden close to the centre of the village.
They talked about slowly embracing the Haßloch – or German – ways: riding bikes, joining clubs, searching for new products in the supermarkets.
“We are grateful to Mama Merkel,” said Ahmad Qader, 13, translating for his parents and talking German in the local dialect. If the family could vote here, they would choose her. “We feel safe and I love German food, especially the spaghetti.”