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Mild-mannered duel

September 2, 2013

Pollsters and papers have not agreed on a winner after Germany's main candidates for chancellor locked horns on national television. Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück focused on issues, not insults, in a dry debate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger, the top candidate in the upcoming German general elections of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Peer Steinbrueck, pose with TV hosts during their TV duel in Berlin, (photo via Reuters)
Image: Reuters

Incumbent Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrück debated their election policies on the television screens of an estimated 12 million Germans on Sunday evening. Billed as a "television duel," the 90-minute debate was more of a diplomatic discussion than a battle to the death ahead of Germany's September 22 election.

Three of Germany's largest polling companies called the debate with every outcome possible, one giving conservative Merkel the edge, another asserting a draw and the third declaring Steinbrück a narrow winner.

German election TV debate

The top-selling "Bild" newspaper even ran the headline "Raab was the winner," in reference to the controversial fourth member of the questioning panel, celebrity game show host Stefan Raab.

With the debate broadly seen as Steinbrück's best late chance to make some inroads with his sharp tongue, the Social Democrat challenger might have hoped for better as he trails in the opinion polls. Merkel, wearing a necklace displaying the colors of the German flag, often required longer to deliver her answers but was able to keep up with the fast-talking Steinbrück's fact-laden challenges.

"Germany is better placed now than it was four years ago," Merkel said at the start of the debate, setting out her stall for a steady hand at the rudder immediately. In her closing statement, the chancellor similarly told voters: "You know me and are aware of what I want to achieve and how I go about it. You have had four good years in Germany, and I would like the next years to be good ones as well."

Merkel highlighted Germany's comparatively solid financial performance during what she repeatedly referred to as "Europe's worst-ever crisis," pointing to record employment figures and tax revenues. Steinbrück used this as a base for a counter attack, however, arguing that many of the jobs were poorly paid or part time. Steinbrück said the Social Democrats campaign to introduce a minimum wage of 8.5 euros per hour ($11.23) would guarantee that those working in Germany could live on their salaries, saying that this was often not the case.

Yet even on a domestic topic where the two main parties have vastly different stances, the debate remained mild-mannered and both candidates sought to avoid personal barbs - even when asked to provide them.

Keeping it civil

Merkel was even asked whether she felt sorry for Steinbrück - with the questioner listing a series of unfortunate campaign episodes when setting up the question - but the chancellor responded that "Mr. Steinbrück really is not in need of my sympathy," adding that they were both used to frequent criticism as career politicians.

Jasper von Altenbockum of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung picked up on the comparatively friendly theme, likening Steinbrück's data-driven barbs to "a question and answer game," rather than a "phalanx advancing on the chancellery." As for Merkel, Altenbockum concluded that she "did – and indeed does - all in her power to elegantly avoid anything that might have turned a duel into an actual duel."

Friction on the eurozone

The two leaders clashed on German leadership within the eurozone during the so-called debt crisis.

Steinbrück said that he would have taken a different path when drafting terms for countries like Greece receiving international loans. He argued that the focus on debt reduction was too strong, with too little effort to promote growth, saying the strict terms for so-called bailouts put the recipient countries into a "vicious cycle" of deepening debt.

Merkel's first retort was to mention Steinbrück's and the Social Democrats' record of supporting the measures in parliament. Under German law, rescue packages for eurozone partners needed a two-thirds majority to be approved, meaning Merkel was reliant on support from the opposition.

During Merkel's first term in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, Steinbrück served as her finance minister - often earning himself a reputation as a right-of-center renegade by his own party's standards.

Near-lockstep on Syria

Both candidates said that under the current circumstances, German military action in Syria was out of the question. Merkel said Germany "can not" take part in a military mission unless it has either a UN, NATO or EU mandate. She said that she'd be pushing for an international agreement on the issue at this week's G20 summit, taking place in Russia - arguably Syria's closest major ally.

Steinbrück also said he hoped for an international consensus, adding he thought military intervention would be the wrong path to take.

The candidates also touched on a string of key domestic debates like highway tolls, pre-kindergarten daycare for children under three, taxation policies and pension provisions.

Lead candidates from the three next-largest German parties – the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party - will hold their own three-way debate on Monday evening on national television.

msh/ccp (AFP, dpa, Reuters)