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Germany

Opinion: Merkel wins debate with the facts

Content-wise, the TV duel between the SPD's Peer Steinbrück and Chancellor Angela Merkel didn't have much new to offer. But, as DW's Kay-Alexander Scholz writes, it became clear how the different parties view the issues.

During the televised debate between the chancellor and her main opponent, the presenters were very careful to ensure that speaking times were equal for both participants. But throughout much of the 90-minute duel between the Christian Democrat's (CDU) Angela Merkel and the Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Peer Steinbrück, aired on four different networks, it was clear that the chancellor was in the lead.

Deutsche Redaktion Kay-Alexander Scholz *** aktualisiert 18.9.2009

DW's Kay-Alexander Scholz

She had the discussion firmly in hand, especially in the first hour. While Steinbrück stood rather stiffly behind his lectern and only glanced at Merkel from the corner of his eye, sometimes with an almost frightened air, the chancellor ran the conversation. She faced her challenger, held her head to one side and listened very closely to what he had to say.

Merkel did not let herself be interrupted by the four presenters, sometimes even enforcing her right to speak with a stern tone. She responded directly to Steinbrück's statements, preventing the presenters from breaking in. If Merkel felt that parts of the roughly dozen topics were not adequately dealt with in the first go-around, she simply took up the thread again at a later stage. In the debate, "Mutti" ("Mom"), as Merkel is sometimes known, showed that she was wearing the pants - which she, in fact, has always been wearing.

Exchange of arguments

Merkel had her reasons, as she was simply trying to explain her policies. And this isn't always possible in 30 seconds. But this also influenced the mood of the debate. Even with her challenger striking a very different tone, it turned into an exchange of arguments, not a fiery duel. Which turned out to be good for the debate. After all, the German election is not about directly voting for a chancellor, but instead choosing their respective political manifestos. This was probably the reason why viewers didn't learn much new from Merkel.

But Merkel is also called "Mutti" because for many, she has developed the reputation as the country's pilot through difficult times. The election campaign has been tailored around her; she is the CDU's strongest weapon. "You know me and how I tackle things. We've had four good years in Germany, and we can only succeed together," she said in her closing statement.

Steinbrück paints a bleak picture

A quick survey after the debate showed, however, that Steinbrück seemed to be the winner of the evening, or that he at least was on par with Merkel. His warning at the start of the debate obviously had an effect: "Don't allow yourself to be lulled into complacency." Later on, Steinbrück spoke of the "empty boxes that Merkel has placed in the shop window." He criticized her policies as a fair-weather show. Steinbrück began many of his answers with "no" - because the SPD actually wants to do everything differently. At times he took to listing several things one after another in quick succession, in order to show how bad the situation actually is in Germany - full speed ahead in the attack on Merkel.

Steinbrück painted a bleak picture of Germany: the health care system was being driven into the ground, the gap between rich and poor had become even greater. Germany would have to become a more just place, and needed a fundamental departure from the current state of things. Steinbrück was tapping into a general feeling expressed by many Germans these days: things have become more expensive, savings have lost their value, there are too many low-paying jobs.

Merkel: factual, more precise

But when it came to specific details, the SPD's chancellor candidate sometimes began to lose his footing. A qualitative, not quantitative, statement would suffice, he said. Or: That can be looked up on Wikipedia. Merkel, on the other hand, had concrete numbers ready and could not be fazed.

And her attacks were more precise. The oft-criticized temporary work scheme was in fact introduced by the SPD, under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, she pointed out. And, she pointed out, Steinbrück was only bringing up the fact that the euro bailout policies had failed in Greece because of the election campaign. After all, Merkel said, the SPD had supported all the bailout packages - and that was a good thing.

Head vs. gut feeling

Merkel also corrected some of the presenters' claims: she had always been against a freeway toll for passenger cars, and another rescue package for Greece was nothing new. In all, however, her performance remained fair. And she didn't just paint the situation in Germany in rosy colors, either, as Steinbrück accused her of doing. But, she pointed out, the direction the country was going was correct, that much could be said. Germany had come through the crisis.

While Merkel wanted to use the debate to explain her positions, Steinbrück tried to appeal to emotions. Unfortunately, it's quite a good and effective strategy to paint a picture of the country on the brink of collapse, with statements such as "the taxpayer is the loser," "a lethal dose for the southern European countries" or "certain madness." Steinbrück portrayed himself as a mighty savior who was giving the campaign "200 percent."

Many serious TV viewers may have been turned off by such bluster. Others may have perhaps, in the typical German way of seeing the worst in everything, felt that this confirmed their views. In this sense, the debate was actually a fight with unequal weapons: head versus gut feeling. Voters will find their own answers to this question. Politics, however, needs a factual debate. And in this respect, Merkel was the clear winner.

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