Look closely at the man who may very soon replace Gerhard Schroder as chancellor of Germany. He is hiding something. As the campaign for Germany's general election on 22 September enters the final straight, Edmund Stoiber, prime minister of the rich state of Bavaria, has skilfully passed himself off as someone he isn't. Will he be twigged?
Nature gives the conservative Stoiber a head start in confusing German voters. Many, especially northerners, still picture Bavarians as bull-necked reactionaries from the beery south who run their own God-fearing conservative party in tandem, but often at odds, with the mainstream German right. Hence the old notion that no Bavarian can be entrusted with the sober responsibilities of the German chancellorship. One look at Stoiber says why he is close to breaking this tradition. Not a glimpse of Bavarian redneckery. Tall, gaunt, with rimless specs, his blond hair turned snow white at 60, this man is surely a Prussian economics lecturer.
But looks alone aren't enough to change the German political mindset and to place a conservative Bavarian in pole position to upset the popular Schroder, who has created a more relaxed modern Germany during four years in office. Stoiber is no extremist. But by instinct and formation, he is hard right - a good deal harder right than his campaign makes him appear.
Strangely, no one, not even as astute a politician as Schroder, has been able to smoke him out. No sooner had the earnest man from Munich become the mainstream right's candidate for chancellor last January than Schroder's Social Democrats sought, predictably, to tag him as a dangerous zealot. After all, wasn't Stoiber the political son of old bullneck himself, Franz Josef Strauss? Strauss, a predecessor as state premier, indeed ranks as the most strident Bavarian right-winger of them all in recent times. So it was that the first political advert placed by the Schroder camp in the tabloid Bild, Germany's Sun, displayed a blank page. At the bottom ran a caption to the effect that the advert was supposed to show a picture of Stoiber, but he was too far off to the right to fit on the page.
With disarming ease, Stoiber slipped clear of this clumsy trap - and has kept free throughout the campaign. He has finessed the reproach from his own side that he looks like a man who causes trouble. His method? Silence. Golden evasion. He won't talk hard politics, won't express firm convictions, won't take up positions. "I agree with you on this problem," he seems always to be telling Schroder in their nationally televised one-on-one debates, "except that I shall handle it better."
He has clever advisers, not all southerners. Their counsel is: never go out on a limb, hammer away at the economy (snagged in recession) and preach the kind of change that won't change anything much (Germans like that). Stoiber has performed admirably even if he was bested by a lively Schroder in their final TV debate. Moderate to a fault, his election posters incontestably proclaim: "There's only one way - forward."
Stoiber became the right's candidate for chancellor by elbowing aside Angela Merkel, novice leader of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), the party of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, which is accustomed to running Germany. With her forthrightness and newness (some called it naivety), Merkel half-rescued a tired CDU from disgrace and humiliation over fraudulent party financing in the Kohl years. Alas, her hangdog look, her East German origins and, no doubt, her gender played against her. The right wanted someone demonstrably tougher for the big job.
Eyes turned to the striving Stoiber, who had been waiting to make a grab for the chancellorship for years, but hadn't quite worked out how. A workaholic who thrives on only a few hours' sleep, he has gained national stature from a decade in the limelight as boss of Bavaria, Germany's largest state in land area, with 12 million inhabitants. But he is not loved by the CDU, the big sister of his separate Bavarian conservative party, the Christian Social Union. The state party's traditions are well to the right of the national party. Furthermore, to mark its presence, the smaller party has had a habit of needling and obstructing the bigger one.
I first met Stoiber in the mid-1990s at his prime minister's office in Munich. Behind him stood a bust of Franz Josef Strauss - to many, a comic-strip Bavarian - the crude cold warrior who gloriously confirmed the notion that a Bavarian was unelectable as chancellor. (He ran for the post, unsuccessfully, in 1980, with Stoiber as minder.) Strauss came to a picaresque end, felled by a heart attack while out hunting at dawn after a night's carousing.
What struck me on meeting Stoiber was the difference between master and disciple. Stoiber had reason to look stiff that day. He had just broken a rib, he said with hardly a grimace, while skiing in the Bavarian Alps, his homeland. Skiing and hiking are hobbies.
Stoiber talked tough on law and order and on the value of the Christian faith in public life, and tougher still on immigration (his inclination at the time was to fill charter planes with recalcitrant Balkan refugees and send them home). I was reassured to hear that, although he did wear Bavarian folk garb when circumstances required, his Bierfest habit was to drink iced tea, conveniently the same colour as beer.
"Bavaria was here long before Germany. People here feel more Bavarian than German. You won't find this feeling anywhere else in Germany," he assured me.
You can bet such clan talk is not part of the Stoiber language now. That would turn off Rhinelanders, northerners and easterners, who may anyway be predisposed to doubt him. To engage in national politics, he has rounded off his Bavarian accent, retaining only a regional burr. At the same time, he is careful not to shed his Bavarian-ness altogether. The trick is to get the dose right. For the subtext of his campaign is this: my Bavaria, with its sunbelt mix of high tech, financial services and modern manufacturing, is the strongest regional economy in Germany; my people are richer; our jobless rate is around half the national rate - so with me as chancellor, the whole of Germany will work better. His most forceful campaign soundbite is his opener: "In my Land . . ."
Born in 1941 in the small Alpine town of Oberaudorf, south of Munich, Stoiber has made his entire career in politics. His father, a salesman and an active Nazi, was held in prison for four years after the war's end as punishment for his enthusiasm. Edmund trained as a lawyer, but while studying became active in local conservative politics, which was aggressively anti-communist and anti-left in general. The bumper sticker on his car as a young politician shouted: "The left stinks." His wife of 34 years, Karin, with whom he has three children, is a Sudeten German whose family was driven into Bavaria from their home across what is now the Czech border at the war's end, along with two million or so fellow fugitives. Sudetenlanders, still eyeing their former property, remain a political force in Bavaria, and Stoiber, as prime minister, is sensitive to their resentments.
Personal warmth and charm will not secure Stoiber the election. In personal popularity he lags behind Schroder by a 20 per cent margin. But this is not a direct, two-man face-off in the American presidential style. What makes a chancellor is what makes a British PM - a favourable majority in parliament. So Stoiber works on credibility and seriousness, confident that voters will give the right a majority.
In the final straight, his conservatives remain a nose ahead of the Social Democrats or at worst in a dead heat. Schroder recovered much ground for the left by saying a flat "no" to George Bush on Iraq, and surpassing himself as a big-hearted, close-to-the-people leader during the recent floods.
But Stoiber looks better placed where it counts most - the stagnant economy and unemployment. Chancellor Schroder, he tirelessly reminds voters, promised to reduce joblessness from four million to 3.5 million. He has failed. Moreover, the once-proud German economy is in a worse slump than practically any other in Europe. To be sure, the Bavarian has no more concrete formula for reversing the trend than has his opponent. To propose one would put him out on the limb his campaign moderation requires him to avoid. He does, however, benefit from another German mindset - an entrenched popular view that the right knows better how to run the economy. It was the right that brought off Germany's postwar economic miracle, and a residue of trust lingers.
So, even on the economy, Stoiber talks soft. He presents himself as standing for the "little people" most hurt by recession (a position that conforms with his Bavarian conservative party's church-based support for social welfare). He is for smaller businesses against big, greedy corporations. He is soft wherever he was once hard: on immigration, gay rights, you name it. He is treading so softly through the campaign, on one foot it seems, that if he wins the election, you won't even hear him entering the chancellery in Berlin. After which, I fancy, the other boot will drop. Hard.