“It’s gone much better than I imagined,” Max Biniek says, his hands covered in red paint.
It’s a sunny Saturday and local election candidate Max is running late to a campaign event — but with good reason. He’s been hammering away all afternoon in his parents’ back yard and has just put the finishing touches to a contraption which he thinks will help his chances at the polls.
“It’s my portable information stand,” he beams, wiping sweat from his brow. This description may be grand but the effect is certainly striking. Max has built a large wooden box, complete with fold-out table, storage cupboard and umbrella. It all fits neatly into a bicycle trailer — and is painted the deep red of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), his party.
Max is standing in the upcoming municipal election in a suburb of the German city of Bonn. While some coronavirus restrictions have been eased over the summer, he has been forced to contend with the challenge of running his campaign in a German state where meetings in public of more than 10 people are still forbidden and face-coverings are required in most indoor public spaces.
While the pandemic has seen some elections postponed, in other places electioneering has moved exclusively to virtual platforms. The US Democratic National Convention this month was a purely digital event and campaigning for the leadership of the UK’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties this spring moved entirely online. But what can a candidate do without a multi-million-dollar budget?
A cycle ride through your electoral district pulling a bright red box adorned with your party’s colors might be a good start. 31-year-old Max has lived in the neighborhood of Endenich most of his life and is well-known locally: He greets passersby with cheery waves. He stops at one point to have a long discussion — at a two-meter distance — with an acquaintance about the election events he has planned in the coming weeks. He calls out merrily to a driver who has taken a wrong turn: “It’s a one-way street!”
“It is a real shame that all the local events and summer festivals are canceled,” Max says as he pulls up his bike at his destination, a local park. “That’s normally where you can go and meet lots of people.”
Max and his fellow candidates are still going ahead with some physical events, holding regular information stands at public parks, playgrounds and outside supermarkets. On this Saturday, they have set up camp at the corner of a green area at a busy crossroads.
‘People need to see my face’
“I think it would bother me if someone came to my door,” reflected Lissi von Bülow, the SPD’s candidate for mayor of Bonn. “I’ve not been doing that at all — but these outdoor events have been working quite well.”
While some of the group keep masks on the whole time they work the information stands, von Bülow says she usually opts not to do so and instead maintains social distancing.
“I want people to recognize me from the leaflets and posters and see my face — so they can get a feeling of whether I am authentic or not,” she said. It is true that her face, along with countless other candidates, adorn nearly every lamppost and bus stop in the city.
Another SPD candidate from a local district, Miriam Schmidt, feels leafleting has become more important.
“I’m not doing door-to-door visits either,” she says. “But I put notices through the door saying where and when I will be available to talk — and then people can come to me if they want. What is important is giving people the option to engage in democracy.”
Max has gone a step further, designing magnets with his phone number to stick to people’s letter boxes.
The candidates are adamant that postponing the election, as was recently announced in New Zealand, was never an option. “There is a constitutional responsibility for people to have their say,” Miriam says.
Campaigns move online
Social media has become a more important battleground than in previous elections. The city center of Bonn is full of students and young families, but in the suburban election districts that Miriam and Max are contending the populations are a little older.
“I pay for advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, but social media is not enough,” Max says. “You need to be able to sit down together; you need personal contact.”
But mayoral candidate von Bülow thinks that some social media campaigns have made electioneering more transparent.
“We’ve really made more of an effort to make our homepage look nicer than before and we produce videos and a podcast for the first time,” she said. “We also do online town hall events, which anyone can attend from their own home.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), currently hold the balance of power at most levels in Bonn including the mayor. In contrast to the SPD, they have made the vast majority of their campaign events digital during the crisis, a move which Max and his fellow candidates hope will give them an advantage.
The CDU and SPD govern Germany in a coalition at the federal level, but in Bonn they are pitted against each other.
Nationally, the coronavirus crisis remains among the most important issues in politics. But people have different priorities at a local level.
Over an hour, mayoral candidate von Bülow and her team answer questions from members of the public on the threatened closure of a local swimming pool, ongoing disruptive roadworks on a bridge and the sparsity of kindergarten spots in Bonn. The global pandemic appears very far from people’s minds.
“I think we’re at the point now where the virus itself is no longer the biggest issue — instead the question for most people is how the future will look,” Max explains. “People are losing their jobs: Food, cultural and event sectors are under huge pressure. These are the major concerns.”
Germany is set to have federal elections in fall 2021, and Max hopes that SPD success in Bonn this September could be a positive sign.
The way people vote during a pandemic could soon change by then as well: The German Parliament is expected to approve a plan to allow the selection party candidates to take place without the need for assembly. The entire process from selection to election could take place exclusively via postal vote.
But for Max and his fellow local candidates, the 2021 elections are not their immediate concern.
“There will be a life after coronavirus — and our communities need to be ready for it,” Max says.