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Germany

Candidates Wield Political Swords in First "Duel"

The mass-circulation Bild newspaper makes history with the publication of Germany's first newspaper-based debate between two chancellor candidates. Both agree on one thing: They don't want to rule together.

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The rhetoric heats up: Gerhard Schröder and Edmund Stoiber (center) match wits in Bild.

Mention the word duel and it evokes medieval sword wielding or Wild West gun battles. But this year, the word Duell means something else in German: It's the term being used for the debates between the chancellor candidates that began in earnest in the pages of the mass-circulation Bild newspaper on Sunday.

Once a device used primary in American presidential elections, debates are the new trend in this year's national elections in Germany. Both candidates have hired media spinmeisters and are running the kind of campaigns previously more familiar to denizens of Washington's Beltway than Berlin.

During Sunday and Monday's so-called "newspaper duel," Bild's editors grilled the incumbent, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and his challenger from the Union bloc, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber.

Though neither side drew blood, there were plenty of barbs to go around in the 90-minute interview. With the opposition Union bloc – which is comprised of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union – running slightly ahead in the polls but with no guarantee of a parliamentary majority, there has been some recent speculation in Germany on the creation of a "grand coalition" after the election.

The last time the CDU and the Social Democrats ruled together in parliament was in 1966, when the Bundestag elected Kurt Georg Kiesinger of the Christian Democrats as chancellor after the rash resignation of Ludwig Erhard. In their Bild match-up, both sides said they were unwilling to consider a grand coalition this year.

Gerhard Schröder says he intends to build Germany's next government with his current partner, Alliance 90/The Greens. Of a grand coalition with the opposition, "I want to rule that possibility out now," Schröder said.

Said challenger Stoiber: "A grand coalition would be harmful to our country." He further stated that it would run the risk of empowering people on the political margins. As examples, he pointed to the recent election successes of right-wing populist politicians in Denmark, Holland and France.

Meanwhile, Schröder also sought to distance himself from his challenger's recent accusation that the Social Democrats might enter into a coalition government with the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany's communists, if they were unable to maintain the Social Democrat-Greens majority in parliament. He said the PDS had such "fanciful" demands in foreign, security, domestic and economic policy areas that it "wouldn't be possible in Germany to govern in a group (that included the PDS), either as a coalition or by tolerating them."

Stoiber said he doubted Schröder could keep to his pledge and pointed out cases where the Social Democrats have cooperated with the PDS in the past. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, the SPD has cooperated with the PDS, and in the city-state of Berlin, the two parties entered into a coalition government last year.

The politicians also exchanged salvos over Deutsche Telekom's recent stock market freefall. Stoiber criticized Schröder for the government's handling of the company's stock performance after its partial privatization. The government, he said, encouraged the public to buy shares in the company. Now, he said, they were "huge losers," having paid as much as 60 euro ($59) for the stock, only to see it plunge to about 10 euro ($9.90) today.

Schröder defended himself, saying, "Until now, I thought your party was proud of having privatized Telekom." He said the current market roller coaster ride was the result of market fluctuations, not the government.

Still, Stoiber criticized the government, which holds 43 percent of Telekom's stock, for permitting the company's board members to get huge pay raises even as the telecommunications behemoth tanked.

The Bild interviews precede the coming television debates on August 25 and September 8 – the first ever in Germany. The first debate will be broadcast on the private television stations RTL and Sat1, and the second will be broadcast on the national public television channels ARD and ZDF.