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Merkel and Steinbrück prepare for German TV election debate

Three weeks before Germans go to the polls, the top candidates for chancellor, Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, are to lock horns on TV. It's the only such debate ahead of the vote, although the opposition wanted two.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger, Peer Steinbrück, will go head-to-head for 90 minutes on Sunday evening in an election debate - aired live on four of Germany's most-watched television channels during prime-time.

The Social Democrats are hoping to score some points against the incumbent, with Steinbrück broadly considered a more evocative public speaker than Merkel. The Social Democrats sought to arrange two televised debates before the September 22 election, but the government said one was enough.

"Mrs. Merkel is clearly afraid, otherwise she would not have refused a second TV duel," senior Social Democrat Thomas Oppermann told the German dpa news agency. "This battle won't be a tea party. Peer Steinbrück will speak plainly and Mrs. Merkel, for once, will not be able to duck the issues." The opposition often tries to portray Merkel as lacking substance, with Steinbrück accusing her of speaking in "popcorn phrases" earlier in the campaign.

Opinion polls currently point to a favorable election outcome for Merkel's Christian Democrats, although it's unclear whether their junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, will score well enough to remain kingmakers.

One in three participants in a survey published in the "Bild" newspaper at the weekend said his or her vote could be heavily influenced by Sunday's debate. The majority of those surveyed, however, did not agree with Oppermann and the SPD: 62 percent of participants expected Merkel to win the war of words, while only 16 percent backed Steinbrück.

Showman Stefan Raab to add accessibility?

The debate has existed in its current format - a one-on-one battle between Germany's two major parties - since 2002. The "duel" replaced the "round table" debates incorporating all major parties late in the 20th century.

Until Gerhard Schröder in 2002, no sitting German chancellor from either side wanted to go head-to-head with their main rivals - leading to the compromise solution. Schröder, a notoriously accomplished speaker, was trailing in the polls at the time, and his decision to take on the Christian Democrat challenger Edmund Stoiber ultimately paid off.

Schröder, again on the back foot ahead of the vote, was widely considered the winner against Merkel in the 2005 debate as well. He made major gains after the TV appearance, but it wasn't enough on election day.

A shot from the 2005 debate between Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder. (Photo: Wolfgang Kumm dpa)

Schröder scored better in the 2005 debate, but Merkel won at the ballot box

Each of the four television channels airing the debate provide one moderator to ask questions and play referee. Three veteran journalists - Anne Will from ARD, Maybrit Illner of ZDF and RTL's Peter Kloeppel - are on the panel, along with a controversial debutante, ProSieben's celebrity game show host Stefan Raab.

"The whole raison d'etre of this event is to reach as many people as possible, including those who may not be interested in the vote," Raab said of the debate, praising the idea of making what he called a "roadblock" by airing it on several major channels. "This way, it's almost impossible to avoid the debate."

German President Joachim Gauck similarly urged as many voters as possible to tune in on Sunday, and to turn up at the ballot box three weeks later.

"Voter apathy and lack of interest should remain the exception in a society like ours," Gauck said. "If you really don't have a favorite, then simply vote for the one you dislike least."

The 90-minute discussion will be split into five blocks, with a different topic for each. Syria, the eurozone's debt difficulties, taxation and social policies are expected to dominate the agenda, although the themes are not made public before the debate. Each speaker has between 60 and 90 seconds for their answer, as well as the chance to deliver a closing statement.

msh/tj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)