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Accent Gets in the Way When Bavarian Candidate Speaks to the Germans

September 22, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — When northern Germans answer the telephone or encounter a friend on the street, they say a simple guten tag--good day.

But in the south, the salutation is gruess gott--greet God--an expression so common it no longer really alludes to religious worship but still puts off those unused to a custom dating to the Crusades.

Much about the southern lilt in the language of Bavarians grates on the ears and nerves of other Germans, and that cultural clash may help explain why Edmund Stoiber was turning off voters still making up their minds ahead of today's election.

The Bavaria state governor, who is challenging Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for the leadership of the country, had aired his views mostly via print interviews until two recent televised debates. Those head-to-head clashes with his more telegenic opponent put his southern ways before the eyes--and ears--of millions of voters.

A muddled policy on how to deal with Iraq and a dearth of expertise on environmental issues have hurt the head of the Christian Social Union in his bid to become the first member of his conservative party to lead modern Germany. But as the perceived embodiment of socially restrictive Roman Catholicism aiming to rule a more liberal and predominantly Protestant land, Stoiber and his singsong Bavarian accent have increasingly been getting a cold reception.

"The party would have had better chances if they had chosen Angela Merkel," German history professor Laurenz Demps said of the more moderate northerner who heads the Christian Democratic Union, which is aligned with Stoiber's party. "Southerners are not so well loved up here. That is a fact. But the Bavarians are so insular, they don't even know that."

No one is saying Stoiber is going to lose because of his accent or even because of his views on family and social policy, which northerners tend to see as old-fashioned. But in a race as close as the one that ends today, such personal nuances could be influential.

Guided by his Hamburg media advisor, Michael Spreng, Stoiber abandoned his customary green felt hat and boiled wool jackets for three-piece suits when he was on northern campaign trails. He also steered clear of the beer halls and oompah bandstands that were his usual platforms when he stumped in friendly territory.

Still, he was pelted with rotten vegetables and empty bottles at recent rallies, prompting his aides and security detachment to carry large umbrellas to protect the candidate and themselves.

The 60-year-old Stoiber brushes off suggestions that he is hitting a cultural barrier that can't be breached.

"It has been said that a Bavarian doesn't stand a chance because of resistance in the north," Stoiber recently told journalists. "But I think that time has passed. I think northerners have changed. They are more tolerant now."

Stoiber carries an added burden among his northern countrymen: He says he will install a raft of fellow southerners in the Cabinet if his alliance wins. His expected choice for overseeing a new economics super-ministry, former Baden-Wuerttemberg state Gov. Lothar Spaeth, is widely admired. But the Bavarian likely to take over the vital Interior Ministry, Guenther Beckstein, is a northern liberal's nightmare. Now serving as state interior minister in Bavaria, Beckstein espouses archconservative and right-wing religious doctrines that have set him apart from many even in his own party.

And although Stoiber has been careful to toe a centrist line, especially during his northern campaign swings, analysts see his views on women and family as out of step with the social mainstream, even if he has appointed a single mother from the east as an advisor.

Asked during the first TV debate what role he saw for a politician's wife, Stoiber replied stiffly that his own spouse, Karin, provides moral support but doesn't talk politics with him.

"I don't believe that would be appropriate," Stoiber told the biggest German television audience ever to tune in to a political program.

Schroeder, whose fourth wife is a former journalist and a generation younger than her husband and the Stoibers, was able to put himself forward as the feminist's advocate in his response.

"I have to ask myself what kind of perception of women one must have to want to reduce one's wife to being friendly and nice but silent on political issues," Schroeder said, drawing praise from post-debate commentators of both sexes.

Germans vote for political parties rather than directly for a chancellor, with the victorious party or biggest faction in an alliance seating its lead candidate in the chancellery. But voters are increasingly choosing parties with personalities in mind, and Schroeder is far more popular than his rival.

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