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Opinion: Germany's Debatable Impact

Marc Young, DW-WORLD.DESeptember 5, 2005

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder may have won Sunday's televised debate with Angela Merkel, but the gaffe-prone leader of the conservative opposition might be the night's real winner, says DW-WORLD's Marc Young.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was expected to beat Angela MerkelImage: AP

Confident. Relaxed. Statesman-like. Gerhard Schröder cut a strong figure in the election's only one-on-one televised debate between the two candidates for chancellor. But nobody really expected anything less from the man widely know as Germany's "Media Chancellor," and though he did well, it would foolish to think his TV presence could single-handedly get him re-elected.

John Kerry solidly beat US President George Bush in three separate debates last year, but he still couldn't defeat him at the polls when November rolled around. That's because Bush is such a horrible speaker that he came through unscathed simply because no one imagined he'd be able to string together a coherent argument.

Merkel, similarly to Bush, was playing a game of managing expectations. She herself had set the bar low with several prominent gaffes on the campaign trail. But on Sunday she put in a respectable performance, showing none of her previous unsteadiness. Aside from looking a little uncomfortable at the start of the debate, Merkel quickly gained her footing. She was very pugnacious and did not shrink from repeatedly addressing and attacking Schröder directly. By not putting in a disastrous appearance, her Christian Democrats (CDU) can now be expected to hold onto their sizable lead in the polls over Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD).

Schröder still upbeat

For most of the debate, Schröder seemed comfortable to take the high road, although he did repeatedly slam Merkel's intended finance minister, Paul Kirchhof. Arguably the best line of the contest was his jab that people would be turned into "guinea pigs" if Kirchhof implemented his plans for a flat tax of 25 percent. And you've got to admire how the man can still come off as so confident despite trailing his opponent so badly. Maybe it's just that he's looking forward to spending more time on vacation in Tuscany next year.

Wahl Fernsehduell Merkel - Schröder Live in Fernsehen
Image: dpa - Report

The biggest losers of the evening were clearly the debate moderators. After Merkel rejected having a second TV duel on the laughable grounds there wasn't enough time before the Sept. 18 election, Germany's four main networks were forced to work on last night's contest together.

The broadcasters each sent a journalist -- two from private and two from public stations -- which proved to be an unwieldy formation for keeping the politicians on topic and under control. Often Merkel and Schröder would ignore a question in order to spend minutes attacking the last statement from the opponent. With fewer moderators they might have been less shy about cutting the candidates off or being more aggressive with their questioning.

Debating in parliament

Some German commentators have lamented that the televised debates are part of the "Americanization" of German politics, where style trumps substance. I'm not sure I totally agree with that assessment, but one does have to question whether such contests are superfluous in a parliamentary democracy. Unlike America where presidential candidate otherwise never have to face each other directly, parliamentary leaders constantly debate one another in Germany. Later this week, just days after Sunday's TV duel, both Schröder and Merkel will take to the floor of the Bundestag for a bit of rhetorical thrust and parry.

Schröder will have to remain in top form if he hopes to gain any momentum in the final two weeks of the campaign. Merkel, on the other hand, may have the bar set just a tad bit higher after her solid debate performance.