Cloppenburg - the secret to the CDU's success

Tradition and "family values" are king in this stronghold for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Merkel's election motto may as well be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The German government under Christian Democrat (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel and the people it rules are a bit like a couple that is no longer in love but just too comfortable to break up. Nowhere is that clearer than in the northern constituency of Cloppenburg-Vechta in Lower Saxony, a seat so safe for the CDU, locals say they could "run a bucket as candidate and win."

Indeed, the party has received upwards of 50 percent of the vote here in every election since World War II.

Don't rock the boat

These two mostly Catholic towns boast rich farms, low unemployment and a relatively high birth rate. And when many local voters express the attitude that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," that seems to encapsulate the feeling around Germany as a whole as polls indicate that Merkel will slide safely into her fourth term as chancellor after federal elections on September 24.

"We're church-goers here, very Catholic, so it makes sense to vote for the Christian Democrats," one middle-aged man from Cloppenburg said - a sentiment echoed with regularity by locals, though curiously none of them could give an example of the Church getting involved in local politics.

"It simply is that way, we always voted CDU, things are going well, so why should we change?" another voter said after attending Merkel's campaign rally in the town.

This rote response was perfectly aligned to the rally. While there was a party atmosphere in the square ahead of Chancellor Merkel's arrival, with children running about, a band playing rock music, and all the beer and wurst you could wish for – the whole event felt more like a block party than a reception for a woman publications like the Guardian and Independent are now calling the leader of the free world.

The safest seat in the house

Ahead of the rally, local CDU candidate Silvia Breher took some time to talk to DW about the CDU and the direction the party has taken under Merkel's leadership.

Breher is running for the first time, following the retirement of Franz-Josef Holzenkamp, who represented Cloppenburg-Vechta for 12 years. She looks like she could have easily been selected by a local focus group – young, stylish, a working mother.

"No, I don't think I'll change much from how Franz-Josef did things," she says flatly, then avoids answering whether or not the CDU can still really count as a conservative party when Chancellor Merkel has so clearly steered it towards the center by co-opting positions from other parties – whether it be her immigration policy, or paving the way for a minimum wage and gay marriage while claiming to personally support neither. Merkel later said her hands were tied by coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD).

"We stand for family values, that's a conservative principle," Breher says. When pressed to give an example, she mentions building more schools and kindergartens – begging the question whether there's a party that would actually be against such a thing.

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'Diversity is our strength'

"When the German chancellor says she'll be here at 7:30, she's here at 7:30!" Yes, that's really the line the presenter uses to whip up the crowd as Merkel takes the stage.

After delivering a routine speech thanking the crowd, a lot of mentions of "family values" and praising Cloppenburg for being the "most child-rich city in Germany" (it has a birth rate of 1.8 children per woman compared to a national average of 1.5) – Merkel lightly touched on topics of boosting digital infrastructure and renewable energy.

"Why is everything going so well in Germany?" Merkel asks the crowd, "because diversity is our strength." Although the crowd here in Cloppenburg is impressively monochrome, the tone of the talk does differ markedly from that coming from, say, the White House.

"The future of Germany is in your hands," the chancellor says to thunderous applause, before wrapping up her talk with praise for the European Union as an instrument of peace.


CDU city

Locals say that "the CDU could run a bucket as a candidate in Cloppenburg and win." This wealthy farming community, which prides itself on having "the most children in Germany," (although its fertility rate is still lower than the national averages for the US or the UK) has given the Christian Democrats more than 50 percent of its votes since the 1950s.


The new faces of German conservatism

Silvia Breher is Cloppenburg's CDU candidate following the retirement of her predecessor Franz-Josef Holzenkamp. Breher avoided answering DW's questions about how Chancellor Merkel has brought the party towards the center with her refugee policy and by opening the door to same-sex marriage. "We stand for family values," she insisted.


Campaign excitement, German style

Cloppenburgers of all ages gathered to eat wurst, drink beer and welcome their chancellor. Although the town applauded heartily and cheered Merkel on, the mellow tone of the rally mirrored the mood across Germany ahead of federal elections on September 24.


Same speech, different day

Merkel's remarks to the crowd highlighted "family values," creating better digital infrastructure, and building schools. While the talk mostly came across as a canned stump speech, she did congratulate Cloppenburg on being the most "child-rich" city in Germany - a common point of pride around here.


The many faces of Merkel

Local left-wing SPD members acknowledged that they have an uphill battle in Cloppenburg. "It's a tough fight," one member of the party's youth wing Jusos told DW, "but someone here has to talk about her hypocrisy."


Champion of sport and commerce

Paul Schockemöhle is a former champion showjumper and something of a titan of industry in Vechta, the town next to Cloppenburg. CDU Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is also a friendly aquaintance of his. Schockemöhle told DW that in a town where things life is so good and unemployment is so low, he didn't see Vechta voting for anyone but the CDU any time soon.


The uphill battle

Vechta's SPD candidate Kristian Kater (left), knows his chances of winning are slim. Here, the Social Democrats chalk the CDU's long-term success under Merkel partially to co-opting some of their own positions, such as on immigration and gay marriage.

Perhaps local celebrity Paul Schockemöhle can best explain the CDU phenomenon in Cloppenburg and Vechta. An Olympic medal-winning showjumper, this self-made man now runs a highly successful riding school, a breeding business, as well as a logistics firm. His family is personally acquainted with CDU Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, as Schockmöhle's wife and the minister often used to go riding together.

"Maybe the next generation will move away from the CDU," says Schockemöhle, "you can see that we are starting to have some pockets of immigration here, and there are fewer people going to church on Sunday. But for now, life is good, so why risk upsetting the apple cart?"

But one thing is clear – even with generational and demographic change, the left-wing Social Democrats (SPD) have no chance here, just as their candidate Martin Schulz has not proven, on the federal level, to be an enticing enough mistress to lure voters away from Merkel.

Like Cloppenburg and Vechta, it may surprise few to learn that the Germany's national election is, at the end of the day, safe and boring.