Who will govern with Merkel?
BERLIN — Sunday night’s debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz (the only confrontation between the two) was billed as “TV duel.” Afterward, exasperated German analysts described it as more of a “duet.”
The pair was largely in unison on most of the key issues, from refugees to pensions, making the 97-minute exchange challenging viewing. Despite the lack of fireworks, the debate will have an impact on the rest of the German campaign.
Here are five takeaways from the debate.
- The race for first place is over
With less than three weeks left until the September 24 election, Schulz, whose Social Democrats trail Merkel’s Christian Democrats by about 15 percentage points in the polls, needed to emerge as the clear winner. He fell short.
Several post-debate polls published by Germany’s public broadcasters gave the chancellor the win. In the largest sample, 55 percent said Merkel emerged victorious, a crushing defeat for Schulz, who struggled to find his footing. In the words of one TV commentator: “The debate will neither hurt Merkel nor will it help Schulz.”
The outcome was all the more surprising given Merkel is not known as a particularly strong debater. True to form, she largely stuck to her usual talking points, offering no surprises. Even so, viewers found her to be more competent, more likeable and more credible.
- Martin Schulz is fighting for his political survival
For Schulz, the campaign is not about becoming chancellor, but getting enough votes to remain SPD chairman. Despite a strong start after announcing his candidacy earlier this year, Schulz failed to maintain momentum. If the SPD finishes significantly below the 25.7 percent it garnered in 2013, the former European Parliament president will almost certainly be forced out.
- The only question now is who will govern with Merkel
That will largely depend on how the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens perform at the ballot box. The next three weeks will be about the race for third. Many conservatives would prefer to reprise their traditional alliance with FDP, which was voted out of parliament in 2013 but is on course to rejoin. That said, even if the FDP makes it back into the Bundestag, the center-right parties may need to get the Greens on board for a majority — a challenging prospect.
- A grand coalition remains a strong possibility
At several points during the debate, Schulz turned to Merkel to say he agreed with her, once even congratulating her response by declaring “à la bonne heure.” The rapport is genuine. For better or worse, Merkel and Schulz agree on most issues, a reality that could help pave the way to another grand coalition, especially if a three-way tie-up between the Christian Democrats, the FDP and Greens proves too complicated.
- Germany needs a new debate format
Sunday’s debate with four moderators quizzing the two candidates was awkward to say the least.
The moderators, all TV personalities from Germany’s big broadcasters, struggled to elicit anything but boilerplate responses. They spent the first hour focused on refugee policy, an area where Merkel and Schulz largely agree, instead of zeroing in on social issues and other areas where the differences between the candidates are more pronounced.
As one undecided young voter told public television afterward: The debate “confirmed what I already know. There wasn’t really anything new.”
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