By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - The German election is just eight weeks away, a clear victory is far from certain - and Chancellor Angela Merkel is taking a long holiday. What's more, voters and strategists alike think it's about the best thing she could do.
For one thing, Germans take their holidays seriously and 85 percent tell pollsters they have no qualms about Merkel taking a break abroad, as millions of others do, after a busy year leading Europe's biggest economy through the euro zone crisis.
But that doesn't mean there isn't also a strategy in spending 18 days on leave, some of it hiking with her husband in the Italian Alps.
It elegantly gets Merkel away from Berlin as two potentially damaging affairs swirl around her government - over intrusive U.S. electronic surveillance, and the waste of 500 million euros ($660 million) on an arms procurement project that was scrapped.
And it conveys a subtle message to voters ahead of the vote on September 22.
"Merkel is sending a signal that, hey, there's an election coming up but there's nothing to fear, everything's going to be fine and people should just relax," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University.
"She really doesn't want to campaign at all," he added. "She knows if she disappears for a few weeks, there's less scope for anyone to attack her. She wants to lull the voters to sleep."
Analysts say a low turnout benefits Merkel because her supporters are likely to vote even without big issues to galvanize them, although her Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrueck will aim to jolt his struggling campaign into life her absence.
ELECTION? WHAT ELECTION?
The latest weekly Forsa opinion poll gives Merkel's centre-right coalition a combined 46 percent, 12 points ahead of a centre-left SPD-Greens alliance led by Steinbrueck, and just enough for a mathematical majority. Other polls show a smaller centre-right lead, just short of a majority.
"By going on holiday now, Merkel is acting as if there isn't even an election campaign going on," said Manfred Guellner, managing director of the pollsters Forsa, whose survey found overwhelming support for Merkel's long holiday.
"Germans believe firmly in the summer holiday and most feel she has earned a break."
And the public seem to back him up.
"Everyone deserves a holiday, even the leader of the German government," said businessman Thomas Schenck, 53, after jogging through the Berlin government quarter.
"Maybe it would be an issue if she went on holiday just a few days before the election," said Ronald Mettelstaedt, 63. "Merkel's going away now won't make any difference to anyone."
Columnist Marek Dutschke wrote in the business daily Handelsblatt that Merkel had done her best to make this dullest election in decades.
"You get the impression Merkel doesn't realize there's an election coming," he said. "Her holiday now is a bit of an act suggesting everything's fine. But everything's not fine. Three million children in Germany can't afford holidays and millions more are working in jobs that don't pay enough to survive."
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(Additional reporting by Marzanne van den Berg; Editing by Kevin Liffey)