Back from her annual summer holiday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has begun the final phase of her re-election campaign this week - not that anyone paid much notice. Arranging campaign appearances in front of high school history classes and old-folks homes, it seems Merkel is doing her best to avoid anything resembling a crowd, let alone a controversy. The contrast to the media-focused political campaigns in the US or UK is striking. Merkel's campaign seems designed to studiously avoid media coverage. She may be Germany's Iron Lady, but her iron has been sheathed in stealth so that nobody really knows where the lady stands.
Meanwhile, with only five weeks left before the elections on 22 September, her opponents are busy doing everything they can to attract media attention. Week by week they shift from issue to issue, all the while hoping to stumble upon a topic somebody cares about enough to at least question the widespread latent - some might say complacent - support for the status quo.
For Peer Steinbrück, the rather hapless standard bearer of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the path to the chancellery was thought to run along a debate over the future of Germany's place in Europe. Criticising Merkel-styled plans for more German fiscal discipline in Europe, Steinbrück argues for a more European Germany. In early August he turned up the volume by claiming that raised in the communist East, Merkel simply lacks a passion for Europe. But for Steinbrück the problem is that people care less about the Chancellor's past than they do about their own present. And looking at the problems facing Greece, Spain, Italy and France, what's so bad with being German? Unemployment is low, wages are increasing (although much to Merkel's dismay) and thanks to surprisingly stable exports, the data on GDP growth for 2013 are better than expected.
How can you run against good economic data? For the Greens the answer used to be found in the ecological price paid for economic growth. But over the course of the past years, Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU) adopted not only the rhetoric but also much of the substance of the Green's traditional platform. In a pirouette worthy of the Ballet Russes, Merkel responded to the Fukushima meltdown by dropping her longstanding support for nuclear energy and calling for the closure of all German nuclear facilities by 2022. Though the business community remains sceptical, Merkel now champions the potential for economic growth through increased demand for German renewable energy technology abroad. Robbed of their signature issue, the Greens have lost much of their profile. Appearing in designer suits at campaign rallies and railing against recent increases in the German national debt, their candidate for Chancellor, Jürgen Trittin, could almost be mistaken for a member of the liberal wing of the CDU, or at least a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Merkel's stealth candidacy is made possible by the fact that the polls consistently show the CDU (together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU) winning above 40% of the vote, thus remaining the strongest political force on Election Day. Although no longer in free-fall, the SPD is unlikely to garner more than 25% of the vote. With the Greens, their share of the electorate might approach 40%. But since both parties have ruled out a coalition with the Left Party, successor to the former East German communists, they won't have the heft to knock Merkel off her perch.
If there is any excitement in this election, then it involves the future of the FDP. In 2009, the Liberals brought in their best election results ever. With almost 15% of the vote, they brought about an end to the grand coalition of CDU (together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU) and the SPD. But since joining government, the Liberals have been plagued by bitter infighting and a generational change in leadership that left many wondering whether any adults were still in the room. Indeed, until the name Edward Snowdon entered the debate, many feared the FDP would fail to secure 5% of the popular vote, the threshold needed to secure seats in the Bundestag.
Meanwhile, the "NSA Spy Affair" has breathed some life into what was turning out to be the most boring election in German history. Again, Merkel is neither to be seen nor heard. Of course this may reflect the fact that the German intelligence services under her watch have collaborated in the NSA's data collection operations. As it turns out, the practice reaches back to the government of her SPD predecessor, Gerhard Schröder - a cause for quite a bit of embarrassment for the SPD. But perhaps the stealth candidate's silence is again strategic? The CDU and SPD are more or less unable to criticise a massive invasion of privacy they countenanced and the door is wide open for a full-force defence of privacy and data security by the FDP. Having found their voice, the FDP also seems to have found a constituency. Polling at 6% they look poised to re-enter both the Bundestag and the government and put Merkel's coalition within striking range of the 48% of the vote they garnered in 2009.
The key to electoral success this autumn? German stealth and American spies.