Merkel rival fails to land sucker punch in election duel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on Monday still on track to win re-election in two weeks’ time after her rival failed to land a knock-out blow in a crunch head-to-head TV debate, commentators said.

Trailing by a double-digit margin in the polls, Social Democrat (SPD) rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier needed a clear victory in Sunday’s encounter, but struggled to set himself apart from Merkel, his boss for the past four years.

While the owlish Steinmeier, who is also foreign minister in a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s centre-right CDU, was snappier and tougher than usual, dailies said he failed to deliver the soundbite that might be a game-changer.

The centre-left Berliner Zeitung said Steinmeier “was unable—and seems fundamentally unable—to muster the necessary brutality and ruthlessness” to score points ahead of the September 27 vote.

“So who won? Frank-Walter Steinmeier was definitely better than his own supporters expected—a bit feistier, which a challenger has to be, but not polemical, more statesmanlike than aggressive, likeable,” the centre-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung said of the only television debate in the campaign.

“But no, Sunday night will not be decisive for the election.”

A poll for ARD public television—one of four channels to broadcast the 90-minute debate dubbed as a “duel” with an expected one-third of the electorate watching—showed 43% of viewers thought Steinmeier had won versus 42% for Merkel.

But when asked who they would prefer to see as chancellor, 53% were for Merkel against just 38% for Steinmeier—albeit a narrower margin than before the debate.

Despite sparring on a national minimum wage and nuclear power, the debate degenerated into a dry exchange of views, prompting one of the four moderators to complain at one point: “This is not a duel, this is a duet.”

“Yes we yawn,” was the mass circulation daily Bild‘s verdict, a play on words on Barack Obama’s famous “Yes we can” slogan in his 2008 campaign to become United States president.

One of the journalists posing questions described the candidates during the debate as “like an old married couple”, trying in vain to get them to lock horns.

Both praised the work of the left-right “grand coalition”, with Steinmeier saying: “We have achieved a lot together” and Merkel agreeing they had “worked well together”.

“This debate was a signal: Neither Merkel nor Steinmeier would have anything against a continuation of the ‘grand coalition’,” Bild said in an editorial.

But Merkel said she could restore the strength of Europe’s biggest economy if she could ditch the SPD and link up with her favoured partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, after the election.

They also clashed on nuclear power, with Merkel seeking to undo plans set in motion by her SPD predecessor Gerhard Schroeder to mothball all the country’s reactors by about 2020.

Merkel said the plants should stay open as a “bridge technology until renewable, affordable energy makes a transition possible.” Steinmeier, however, called nuclear power dangerous.

Both tried to claim credit for the recent state-brokered rescue of carmaker Opel and for lower unemployment.

And they differed over Steinmeier’s call for a national minimum wage, which Merkel said would be a job killer, touting instead sector-wide pay deals.

Political scientist Gerd Langguth of the University of Bonn said the nature of the loveless “grand coalition” kept the debate tepid.

“Merkel and Steinmeier actually just neutralised each other,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse, predicting that smaller opposition parties would be the real winners of the lacklustre “duel”.—AFP

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