German Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping up
efforts to head off the threat posed to her re-election bid by the
scandal surrounding allegations of rampant US surveillance of
Europe's communication networks.
Instead of Germany's solid economic performance and Merkel's deft handling of the euro debt crisis, the campaign for the September 22 election has been dominated recently by claims that her government knew the US was collating information from online services in Europe.
The uproar in Germany was triggered by US whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on allied governments and their citizens through the so-called PRISM programme.
In addition to speaking to US President Barack Obama on the issue, Merkel has also called for strict European Union rules on the protection of personal data and demanded that US intelligence services adhere to German law.
"The chancellor sees her job and her duty to protect German citizens," her spokesman said Wednesday. This includes both providing personal security and protecting people's private lives, he said.
Having so far failed to dent Merkel's commanding lead in opinion polls, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens have seized on the stream of claims about the US intelligence service collecting information from telephones, emails and internet searches.
The opposition has moved to increase the pressure on Merkel by portraying her as having mishandled the scandal and not protected German data from international spying agencies.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich faced another day of grilling Wednesday from lawmakers about his visit last week to Washington, which was aimed at shedding light on US surveillance activities in Europe.
While Friedrich has conceded that more information is needed on the US operations, he has also revealed it was US intelligence that had prevented five terrorist attacks in Germany.
Underlying the risks for Merkel have been attempts by the junior member of her coalition, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), to bolster their weak poll numbers by taking the high ground on the issue.
The government must "take more action," said Gisela Piltz, an FDP member of the parliamentary interior committee.
The internet activist Pirate Party also hopes the anger in Germany about the US snooping claims might translate into votes for them in September.
"(Germany) is going down the wrong road," warned the party's general secretary, Katharina Nocun, this week. "We are in danger of sacrificing democracy."
Opinion polls so far show that the revelations about the global eavesdropping by the United States have had little effect on the German election campaign.
Based on a survey released Wednesday by pollsters Forsa, Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU) allies appear set to remain the largest political bloc in parliament after the election - with about 41 per cent of the vote.
The poll showed Merkel with a popularity rating of 57 per cent compared to her main challenger, SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck, who is backed by just 20 per cent of voters.
Forsa chief Manfred Guellner also questioned whether the scandal surrounding the PRISM programme would end up playing a key role in the election.
He said that issues concerning voters' daily lives, such as jobs and health, would be far more decisive on election day.
"I don't believe that it will be an important election issue because no one has so far been able to score any points with the question," Guellner said.
Germans are, however, particularly sensitive when it comes to privacy and data protection issues, largely as a result of the aggressive surveillance of citizens carried out by the Nazi regime and later by Communist authorities in the former East Germany.
This leaves Merkel facing a possible political backlash if even more damaging claims of intrusive behaviour by intelligence agencies and their exchange of information emerge ahead of the election.
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