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Lots of Touchés, But No Clear Winner in German Debate

There was no clear winner in Germany's first televised debate between chancellor candidates on Sunday night. But Stoiber and Schröder succeeded in piquing interest in what had until now been a sleepy election.


Both failed to score many goals in Germany's first televised chancellor debate

Going into Sunday night's debate against Edmund Stoiber, Gerhard Schröder already had a huge disadvantage – as the four-year chancellor of Germany, he found himself in a defensive position. It was a fundamental weakness that challenger Stoiber, the premier of Bavaria, put to his advantage in a series of forceful attacks against the chancellor covering the most important issues of the election, making the anticipated event feel like a political soccer match.

The most contentious exchanges revolved around spiraling unemployment, a stagnant economy, tax reforms, immigration and Germany's stance on a possible Iraq invasion – all dominant issues in the media during the days and weeks leading up to the first debate. The keyword of the night seemed to be "failure," of which both candidates repeatedly accused the other of on each key issue. The debate, which is being called a "duel" here, was broadcast by the private television stations RTL and SAT.1.

Schröder taken to task for soaring unemployment

In one of the most aggressive salvos of the evening, Stoiber blamed Germany's high unemployment level of over four million on the current red-green government, led by Schröder's Social Democrats and The Greens. He said Schröder had failed in his promise to reduce unemployment levels to fewer than 3.5 million people. He criticized Schröder for his plan to delay a tax cut scheduled for 2003 in order to fund the rebuilding of communities ravaged this summer by the biggest floods in a hundred years.

He said the government made a "mistake" by instituting tax reforms that did nothing to help what he described as the "most important" part of the German economy: small- to middle-sized businesses. "We can't forget that the center of gravity of our labor market is dependent on the ... German market. We have only a relatively small share of exports to America. Other countries, like England, France, Sweden, Finland and Spain have the same international ties, but they don't have the dramatically growing number of unemployed or such a weak economic growth rate."

Schröder conceded he was disappointed by Germany's unemployment rate, but fought back by saying it was the result of the global economic downturn and not a homemade problem as Stoiber had suggested. As for the delayed tax cut, he said, "I'm convinced that the people of this country understand that today's damage can't be compensated for with debts that our children and grandchildren will then have to pay."

How full is the ship?

Addressing immigration, Stoiber said he thought it was "wrong for Germany to have a law that provides for more immigration." He said that every year Germany takes in 500,000 to 600,000 new immigrants -- the equivalent of cities like Dortmund or Nuremburg. He said the new immigration law would increase that number by 100,000 to 150,000. "We aren't even finished assimilating the foreigner children who are already here. We need to do a lot more. For that reason we shouldn't increase immigration," he said.

Schröder defended his government's new law, passed in March, saying it both limited immigration in areas where it isn't needed while at the same time opening doors for highly skilled workers who are needed in the technology sector. While Stoiber's numbers were correct, he said, he had omitted the annual outflow of several hundred thousand – refugees of countries once torn by civil war, for example. When you add those figures in, he said, the increase is more like 100,000 people.

Stoiber: Schröder's Iraq position "irresponsible"

Schröder also found himself on the defensive on the subject of a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Recently, Schröder has alluded that the U.S. was planning to engage in "military adventurism," and said that Germany would not participate, even under a United Nations mandate. On Sunday night, however, Schröder sought to draw a line between his stances on U.N. efforts to get weapons inspectors back inside Baghdad and the U.S.' desire to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

"In light of the situation in the Middle East, and considering the fact that we haven't conquered the Taliban and are far from having rebuilt Afghanistan, a military intervention in Iraq is wrong, and for that reason, under my leadership, Germany will not help in that effort," the chancellor said.

Stoiber, meanwhile, called Schröder's public statements on the issue, and his stance, "irresponsible." He specifically criticized Schröder for saying the country must go the "German way," a phrase he said had historically charged connotations -- at least in the ears of the international community. He also said Schröder's public statements and policy reduced some of the international pressure on Hussein.

"With Saddam Hussein, you have a war criminal as head of government, a head of state who possesses weapons of mass destruction and has even used them against his own people and those in neighboring Iran. We need to do everything we can, make every diplomatic effort, apply as much political pressure" as is needed to get UN inspectors back inside Iraq, Stoiber said. He said the chancellor shouldn't be ruling out every "theoretical option."


So who won? The jury can't seem to make up its mind. Immediately after the debate, the editor in chief of the newsweekly "Der Spiegel," Stefan Aust, said he "didn't get the impression he (Schröder) was the media chancellor. He could have done better." Aust even accused him of putting his German television audience to sleep. But polls taken of viewers Sunday night were all over the board. A Forsa Institute poll for Sat.1 put Schröder ahead. Another, by pollster Wahlen for public broadcaster ZDF had Stoiber ahead by two points. But another, by Infratest dimap for public broadcaster ARD put Schröder far ahead of his Bavarian challenger.

In editorials published in the Monday editions, many major regional newspapers shied away from declaring a victor. The mass-circulation "Bild" described German voters as the victors for even taking an interest in the debate. The "Berliner Zeitung," meanwhile, described it as a duel that had neither a conqueror nor someone who had been conquered.

Indeed, if a television debate were analogous to soccer, you might say that Stoiber controlled the ball for much of the game – e.g. he steered the issues and went in with the most attacks – but neither candidate, it seemed, scored many goals. And that's too bad considering that in Germany's first ever television debate there was no provision for penalty shots.

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