It’s the day before the German election, and Stefan Liebich, a member of the Bundestag for the far-left Die Linke party, is standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection, smiling and shaking hands. He has a boombox and an assistant who fills up crimson balloons that say “Really Red” — to differentiate them from the slightly-less-red balloons being inflated by their rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), who have a similar setup just a few feet away. He’s in peak campaigning mode, yet he takes a 45-minute break to talk to a group of foreign journalists, including me, who can’t vote and don’t speak German. Liebich’s casual arrangement seems fitting for someone running for, say, student council in the U.S., but he’s actually just a few thousand votes from losing his seat in parliament if Die Linke doesn’t garner a large enough percentage in the upcoming election. He says he is “excited” to see whether or not he makes it in. It may seem barebones, but this is a typical last-day campaign event for a parliamentarian in Germany, where campaigns get government funding, parties are allocated TV advertising time, and microtargeting of voters is unthinkable.
To Americans who rarely get a respite from partisan vitriol, fundraising requests, and attack ads during campaign season, it’s almost enough to make you want to brush up on the college German and head to the visa office. “It is completely different from the States,” Liebich said. “And I’m happy about it.”
But the scale of the campaign is just the start. There are no attack ads, because, in post-reunification in German culture, “the attacker would always turn out to be the loser,” Liebich explains.
Each party creates just one 90-second ad for the entire election, and the number of times it airs on TV is proportional to the number of votes the party garnered in the last election. For smaller parties like Die Linke, that means about four times on each of the two major channels. Total. In the last U.S. election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent more than $400 million each on TV ads, the vast majority of them negative.