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Schröder, Merkel to Face Off in TV Debate

Jens Thurau (jdk)
September 4, 2005

Millions of Germans are expected to watch the only debate between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, on Sunday.

Angela Merkel (l) and Gerhard Schröder ready to debateImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Germans are ready for the 90-minute debate that will allow for more spontaneity than the debates during the 2002 election. Four journalists from four television networks -- public broadcasters ARD and ZDF as well as private channels RTL and SAT.1 -- will ask their questions.

In contrast to 2002, candidates won't (always) be cut off mid-answer due to time constraints. The director is supposed to focus on the arguments, not on sweating foreheads or jittery hands.

One or two debates?

Even before Germany's constitutional court gave the green light for early elections on Sept. 18, the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) and the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) had already agreed that their chancellor candidates would square off.

The question was how many times? Once or twice.

Schröder vor den Bildschirmen
Schröder on all channelsImage: AP

Chancellor Schröder, not someone to shy away from a television camera nor a discussion, wanted two debates. Yet he did not want to push the matter.

"We shouldn't make this an election topic," Schröder said matter-of-factly. "It has to do with content, it has to do with experience, with steadfastness, and sometimes to have the rigor to lead a country in a difficult situation. We shouldn't forget this."

Disadvantage for Merkel?

Angela Merkel and the CDU on the other hand were more hesitant in taking the plunge and step up in front of an estimated 20 million people against Schröder. Yet recent polls reveal that over one-fifth of German voters would make their decision on whom to vote for based on the TV debates.

Merkel can at times seem robotic and stiff in public. She also has a propensity to impatience.

Angela Merkel bei Sabine Christiansen
Merkel during a TV interviewImage: dpa

"It isn't enough to moan like some are doing now," she screamed at hecklers during a campaign appearance in Warnermünde. "What we should do, to put it bluntly, is to use our thick skulls so that we can work properly later."

An unavoidable event?

The television debate, an American creation that swayed the US presidential election in 1960, didn't make it to Germany until 2002. It may not have proved as pivotal for Gerhard Schröder as it did for John F. Kennedy four-and-a-half decades ago, but it did not hurt the chancellor.

Schröder's challenger then, Edmund Stoiber, whom many chuckled over words getting stuck in his craw, proved a formidable challenger to the media-savvy chancellor. He also realized that the debate had become an unavoidable event in future elections.

Gerhard Schröder und Angela Merkel
Image: dpa ZB - Fotoreport

"We may complain about it or welcome it," the eventual loser in the 2002 election said. "It is a bit of Americanization. But I think that there probably won't be another parliamentary campaign without this direct discussion and confrontation between the chancellor and his challenger."

The Sunday debate will not be Schröder's and Merkel's last television encounter before the election, however. A Sept. 12 program, originally meant for the party chairs to discuss their political platforms, will now serve as an unofficial second debate after Schröder took the seat of Social Democratic Party leader Franz Münterfering, who cannot attend.