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TV Duels on the International Screen

DW staff (mh)
September 3, 2005

As German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, prepare to square off in a TV debate Sunday, DW-WORLD examines election debate cultures around the world.

Lights, Camera, ActionImage: AP

United States

On Sept. 26, 1960, for the first time in the US history, a debate between presidential candidates was shown on television. The candidates were John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, the US vice president. They met in a Chicago studio to discuss US domestic matters.

Buchcover: Etges - John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy emerged the winner

Kennedy emerged the apparent winner from this first of four televised debates. Tanned, telegenic Kennedy made a much better visual impression than pale, makeup-free, stubble-chinned Nixon, who was recovering from the flu. It was the first time the power of television in political contests became apparent.

The election was held in November and Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote in one of the closest presidential elections in US history, surpassing by a fraction the 49.6 percent received by his Republican opponent.

In the 1992 debates, George Bush senior was caught on camera checking his watch during a town hall debate with then-Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot. The gesture gave viewers the distinct impression that the elder Bush would rather have been elsewhere.

The most recent debate controversy was Bush's so-called mystery bulge during the 2004 debates. A TV image from the Miami debate reveals what looked like a large solid object between his shoulder blades as he leaned over the lectern to face the moderator.

Dritte Fernsehdebatte George Bush und John Kerry
President Bush shakes hands with John Kerry ahead of the 3rd debateImage: AP

Some said the bulge under his jacket was a hidden receiver, picking up transmissions from someone offstage who was feeding the president answers through a hidden earpiece. Speculation burned up Internet blog sites. On a few occasions, the president simply stopped speaking for an uncomfortably long time and stared ahead with an odd expression on his face. Was he listening to someone helping him with his response to a question?


TV duels are foreign to Chinese television, which is no great surprise for a country which doesn't tolerate much by way of political discussion. Live political programming is rare, with those programs which do make it on to air, filled with boring political events in which politicians obediently toe the party line. Real politics happens behind closed doors, away from the prying eye of TV cameras.

Zhao Ziyang
Former Chinese Premier Zhao ZiyangImage: AP

At the beginning of the 1980s, the so-called third generation of party leaders celebrated their debut in front of the cameras. During the press conference at the end of the 13th Party Congress (of the 13th People's Congress) the new Party Head Zhao Ziyang was relaxed and spontaneous with both Chinese and western journalists.

That gave birth to a new generation of television-conscious party leaders, but it didn't last long. Zhao Ziyang's political end was also shown live on television in 1989 when millions viewed him shedding tears for the hunger-striking students marching on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Ziyang was consequently removed from power and placed under house arrest until his death in 2005.

1989 saw the televising of an altogether different debate, when the then premier of the state council, Li Peng, faced the student leader, Wuer Kaixi. Wearing hospital pajamas and breathing apparatus, Kaixi posed provocative questions to media-shy Peng. Millions of viewers saw their otherwise sovereign leader in disgrace.

Jiang Zemin und ein Kameramann
Jiang Zemin talks to a cameramanImage: AP

But not all party functionaries are media-shy. Zhao's successor, Jiang Zamin, loved television and presented himself as a multi-talented leader with an unconventional style, and was once seen on TV singing "O Sole Mio."

In today's China, party functionaries know how to use TV images to benefit themselves. Party Head and technocrat Wen Jiabao was seen crying on TV after a mine accident and put on an emotional display while talking with a very poor farmer.


Luiz Inacio Lula - Wahlen in Brasilien
Brazilian President Inacio Lula da SilvaImage: AP

TV Debates began in Brazil in 1989 when current President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva first ran for office. After a first TV debate, Lula was well positioned to significantly catch up with his opponent, Fernando Collor de Mello. Indeed, just a few days before the election, Collor was just one percentage point ahead of Lula in the polls.

In the second debate, the most important Brazilian broadcaster, Globo TV, declared that Collor had outperformed Lula and aired part of the debate that was unfavorable to Lula.

Fernando Collor de Mello
Former President Fernando Collor de MelloImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Collor de Mello is part of a family in the state of Alagoas, which has controlled the Globo TV station since 1978. The media giant supported the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and has backed all subsequent governments for decades.

Ultimately Mello won with a 5-percent lead, but the so-called "Collor-Phenomenon" didn't last long. Two and a half years later, corruption charges forced President Collor to resign.

After the last election in 2002, Lula da Silva was elected. Today his government is involved in numerous corruption scandals and he is facing a similar impeachment procedure to the one that drove Collor from office.

Spanish-speaking countries

Many Spanish-speaking countries hold populist TV debates fashioned from the American mold, but there are some distinctions from country to country.

Chile has seen the gradual development of a stabile structure for public debate and TV debates have emerged since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Aznar EU Gipfel Sevilla
Jose Maria Aznar has been and gone as Spain's premierImage: AP

In Spain there has only been one TV debate, namely between the Socialist Felipe Gonzalez and the conservative Jose Maria Aznar in 1996.

Mexico had its first TV debate in 1994. In contrast to Germany, where TV debates are subject to strict rules, Mexico has no such regulations. Rather than structured debate, the objective is to discredit one's political opponents with accusations and insults.

The Arab World

American-style TV debates are not a feature of the Arab world, and are strictly outlawed by the powers that be. But those same powers are not unaware of the opportunities television offers them in the name of protecting their patch.

One of the first to make use of the power of the media was Egyptian politician Gamal Abd an-Nasser who allowed a radio broadcast to transmit his announcement of the nationalization of the Suez Canal. In 1967, following the devastating defeat in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, Nasser offered the people his resignation during a spontaneous TV appearance, fully aware that the vast majority would call for him to remain in office.

His successor, Sadat, was often filmed with his pipe and cane to portray himself as an authentic and down-to-earth leader.

Hosni Mubarak
Egyptian President Hosni MubarakImage: AP

By contrast, the current President Mubarak is perceived as uncharismatic and boring. During his speeches, officials and members of the media often fall asleep. And it doesn't help that his speeches are televised on all TV channels, often interrupting programs people really want to watch.

The late Palestinian President Arafat was known for embracing and kissing his guests in front of the cameras. In addition, he cultivated simple, but symbolic gestures, eating with common people and kissing the hands of ladies.

Muammar el Gaddafi
Libyan leader Moammer GadhafiImage: AP

Last but not least are the spectacular appearances of the "media star" of Arab politics, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Fleeting poses capture him sleeping in a tent and camel back riding.


The Russian Federation was one of the first eastern bloc states where TV debates were introduced for elections. The first TV battles were organized shortly after the resignation of Gorbachev and the breakup of the Soviet Union on June 19, 1991. Millions of Soviet citizens followed these tense political shows with a mixture of euphoria, naive hope and child-like faith.

Russland: Boris Jelzin, Porträt, Kalenderblatt
Former Russian President Boris JelzinImage: dpa

The first presidential campaign in Russia lasted for two weeks and the TV debate provided each candidate with equal time to receive and answer live questions from the audience and moderators. Many top Russian politicians, including ex-President Boris Yeltsin and the current head of the ultra-nationalistic Liberal democrats Vladimir Shirinovski took part.

Boris Yeltsin was elected as the first President of Russia on June 12, 1991. Shirinovski disagreed with the polls claiming that he had won and that the polls had been manipulated.

All subsequent debates on Russian television were more of a show than a serious political discussion. During a TV debate between Shirinovski and the ex-faction head of the democratic party SPS, Boris Nemzov, the two rivals doused each other with water. In another case the debaters started a brawl. During a debate running up to regional presidential elections in the Republic Tatarstan in 2001, the former Duma delegate Sergei Shashurin shelled the then president with swear words and relentless accusations. The president felt insulted and made Shashurin appear in court as a result.

Wladimir Putin Fernsehansprache
Russian President Vladimir Putin won't debate on televisionImage: AP

The current Russian President Putin doesn't care much for televised political debates and refused to participate during the last presidential election.

"I already know every word of my competitor," Putin said. "Of course, you can try different tricks. You can sing and dance. But the people in our country can still decide with their hearts where the truth is and where lies are hidden."

The TV debate in 2003 took place without Putin and wasn't aired live, but pre-recorded and edited.