Politicians know there are plenty of ways to spice up a dull election campaign. Organize a rousing rally. Bring out the celebrity endorsements. Or maybe just show a little cleavage? That's Vera Lengsfeld's election strategy, at least. The 57-year-old candidate for Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has the country abuzz over her provocative campaign posters, which feature photos of Lengsfeld and CDU compatriot Chancellor Angela Merkel in low-cut tops, accompanied by the slogan "We Have More to Offer."
Lengsfeld, who is standing as the conservative CDU candidate for Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district in the Sept. 27 federal election, faces a tough battle, as her constituency is dominated by the Green Party. So she figured the best way to win votes for her and for her party was to show off some of the CDU's best assets.
The shot of Merkel in a glamorous and revealing evening dress was taken during a visit to the Oslo opera in April 2008. Back then, the sight of the Chancellor's décolletage raised some eyebrows and triggered a heated debate in the German media over her "demonstratively feminine" physique. Now that photo, side by side with one of Lengsfeld looking equally feminine, is generating both glee and outrage across Germany.
Lengsfeld says she bought the rights to the saucy Merkel shot but didn't ask for the Chancellor's permission before using it on the posters. "I know Mrs. Merkel, and I know that she's got a sense of humor," she tells TIME. "I'm sure she'll be amused." But some Germans aren't finding it so funny. Lengsfeld's critics some even in her own party accuse her of stooping too low to get votes, saying a female politician should find a better way to get her point across than flashing her plunging neckline. "We're focusing on content and not razzmatazz," Maria Böhmer, a CDU member and head of the party's Women's Union, told reporters. Others have questioned the candidate's feminist credentials.
But Lengsfeld, a former East German dissident and single mother, shrugs off the attacks. "It's ridiculous to suggest that I'm being sexist or antifeminist," she says. "I'm a woman and I'm proud of that. I just wanted an eye-catching campaign poster to draw attention to serious election issues, like climate change. The posters are meant to be funny and ironic."
Last week, on one day alone, Lengsfeld's election blog attracted 31,000 hits, with a lot of people leaving positive comments proof that her racy posters meet the approval of many Berlin voters. And that only adds to the CDU's good news. Even before the posters were put up, Merkel's party was storming ahead in national opinion polls. One recent survey by the Forsa Institute showed the conservative CDU/CSU bloc with 38% of the vote, while the Social Democrats, Merkel's partners in the current grand-coalition government, are trailing with 21%. The conservatives' campaign also got a huge boost on Aug. 13, when new figures were published showing that after months of recession, the German economy was growing again.
But what does Merkel think about the cleavage posters? When TIME called the Chancellor's office, a spokesperson predictably declined to comment. At the CDU's national headquarters, a spokeswoman tartly said that "there was no prior consent for this issue." Party officials refuse to be drawn on the details. There's no denying, though, that Lengsfeld's womanly attributes have turned the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg into the most exciting constituency in the German capital and made the CDU the hot topic of the day. And that must give Merkel plenty to chuckle about.