Rival accuses Angela Merkel of ‘deadly dose’ of austerity
German election race hots up in television debate as chancellor suggests she is safe choice
Visitors watch the live television debate between German chancellor and Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel and Social Democrats challenger Peer Steinbrück at the Adlershof studios in Berlin last night. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Germany’s federal election finally roared into life last night when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-left challenger accused her on live television of forcing a “deadly dose” of austerity measures on struggling European economies.
With three weeks to polling day, 60 million German voters were treated to a closely-matched election debate where Dr Merkel presented herself as the safe choice for Germany as a “growth motor and stability anchor” for Europe.
But her smiling Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Peer Steinbrück accused the chancellor of trapping Germany in a “roundabout” of political standstill and Europe in a vicious circle of economic decline and cutbacks.
“Of course there has to be consolidation [in Europe] but not in a deadly dose, it has to be accompanied with stimulus measures for countries,” said a confident Mr Steinbrück, dressed in a dark suit. “This crisis is not a debt crisis; it is, in many countries, a banking crisis: in Ireland, Cyprus, Spain. Where is the ambition to regulate banks or wind them up at the expense of creditors and investors?”
After a nervous start Dr Merkel soon warmed up for a calm attack on her opponent. Dressed in a navy suit and black-red-gold chain – the colours of the German flag – she said the SPD was promising “false solidarity” in the euro crisis with promises of pooled sovereign debt.
‘Solidarity’ with neighbours
If elected to a third term, she would continue her euro crisis strategy of “solidarity” with EU neighbours “only in return for self-responsibility”.
“We have to spend our money sensibly, we have to improve competitiveness, and deficits have to drop,” she said, calling the euro a guarantor of prosperity of “particular benefit” to Germany.
The German leader refused to be drawn on the likelihood of a third aid package for Athens: her responsibility was to “ensure reform pressure on Greece doesn’t let up”. A waspish Mr Steinbrück accused her of wielding a “consolidation club” with Athens and others.
With a 15-point poll gap to close with Dr Merkel’s CDU in three weeks, the SPD politician ruled out joining a Merkel-led government and presented his party as the guarantor of greater social cohesion in an increasingly unfair country.
SPD plans to increase the top tax rate would bring in extra money for education, he promised, while a €8.50 statutory minimum wage would boost domestic demand and curb Germany’s growing low-wage sector.
Dr Merkel warned that tax increases would endanger jobs, result in a lower tax take and hamper German plans to present a balanced federal budget by 2015 and begin paying back a five-decade debt mountain.
After lengthy domestic disagreements, Dr Merkel and Mr Steinbrück were in conspicuous agreement on military action against Syria.
Dr Merkel ruled out German participation “under all circumstances” but promised to push for international agreement on a diplomatic solution.
“We need a collective UN answer to an abuse of chemical weapons that is no bagatelle but an insane crime,” she said.
Mr Steinbrück went further, ruling out German participation or strategic support for allies.
Asked what they thought of Edward Snowden, Mr Steinbrück said the NSA whistleblower had demonstrated “civil courage and civil disobedience” and attacked Dr Merkel’s “relaxed” approach on allegations of US spying on German citizens.
After 90 minutes of debate, a snap poll conducted by ARD public television suggested that 49 per cent of viewers found Mr Steinbrück more convincing compared with 44 per cent for Dr Merkel.