Televised debate pushes German election into high gear
The debate is challenger Martin Schulz’s last, best chance to turn the election around
German chancellor Angela Merkel and the leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz, on campaign posters in Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA
With three weeks to go, Germany’s federal election enters high gear this weekend with the first – and last – direct confrontation between chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger, Martin Schulz.
Four German television broadcasters, as well as dozens of radio stations, will air the highly anticipated 90-minute debate – dubbed “TV duel” – between Dr Merkel and Mr Schulz on Sunday evening.
After three terms in office, polls suggest the chancellor’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is closing in on its 41 per cent result from last time out.
For Mr Schulz and the centre-left SPD, meanwhile, the debate is his last, best chance to land a blow on the slippery German leader and close a 15-point gap in support.
Mr Schulz, a former European Parliament president, is flagging after an early popularity spike. He insists, however, that he can pull in some of Germany’s 46 per cent undecided voters and “turn the election” in his favour.
“There is a wish for an alternative to Angela Merkel,” said Mr Schulz on Friday to the Bild tabloid.
German poll analysts are less confident, with Prof Manfred Güllner of the polling agency Forsa saying it would take a “miracle” for Mr Schulz to finish first.
In the TV debate, Mr Schulz will wrestle back credit for SPD initiatives pushed through in office against CDU opposition, from a minimum wage to rent controls.
But his room for attack is limited given SPD support for Merkel during eight of her 12 years in office. Most damaging: a poll showing a narrow majority of SPD voters think Angela Merkel, not Martin Schulz, will be the next chancellor.
The most contested issue in the campaign – and probably the debate – remains Dr Merkel’s decision in 2015-16 to allow more than one million people into Germany to file for asylum. That decision, and subsequent attacks in Germany by Islamists who posed as asylum seekers, has boosted support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
Ahead of a European court ruling on Wednesday on EU refugee burden-sharing, Mr Schulz, who backed the Merkel approach, has refined his refugee attack on the chancellor.
“It was a mistake not to inform her European partners ahead of time but after, allowing countries like Poland and Hungary to slip out of their responsibility by saying ‘This is a German problem’,” he said.
If the race for gold and silver is already run, the battle for bronze could yet decide what government will emerge from the September 24th poll.
A third outing for the current CDU-SPD grand coalition is considered the least attractive option, meaning Dr Merkel may revisit her second-term alliance with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), a pro-business traditional ally set to re-enter parliament after four years in the wilderness.
Dr Merkel’s campaign talk of “fresh wind” has driven speculation she would bring into power her CDU’s one-time sworn enemies: the Green Party. The centrist Merkel CDU and a more conservative Green Party are closer than ever before ideologically, given Dr Merkel has eliminated the big policy differences of old, from nuclear power to marriage equality.
But the influential Green rank-and-file are not impressed by idea, fearing capture by Dr Merkel’s CDU. And with the Greens struggling on 8 per cent or less in polls, it’s clear voters are dubious.
Other coalition constellations are possible, too. A strong showing by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland could rejig majorities and force Angela Merkel into a three-way, so-called Jamaica coalition with the FDP and Greens. Meanwhile a strong showing by the hard Left Party (currently on 8 per cent) could allow, on paper at least, a previously taboo three-way centre-left coalition with SPD and Greens to oust Angela Merkel. Another option to oust Dr Merkel, even if her CDU finishes first: a so-called “traffic light” coalition of SPD (Red) Greens and FDP (Yellow).
GERMANY’S MAJOR PARTIES AND POLL NUMBERS
Merkel’s CDU and Bavarian CSU allies heading for first place with the Merkel security blanket and a vague promise of a “Germany in which we live, and live well”.
Germany’s oldest party remains wracked by a 15-year identity crisis over economic reforms that turned around the economy. Election promises: greater social and infrastructural spending and pension reform.
Free Democrats 10%
The Lazarus of this election, a business-doctor-lawyer party that lost its way – and its Bundestag spot – in 2013. Will extract a high price for entering power again: cuts to bureaucracy, debt and taxes.
The eco-warrior party is now a more conservative city-dweller grouping that, after backing the SPD twice (1998-2005), could be lured into the Merkel camp if the numbers add up.
Left Party 9%
Alliance of heirs to East German communists and SPD reform rebels. It opposes foreign military missions, wants Nato abolished and a minimum wage hike to €10.
Alternative für Deutschland 8%
The party, which was born in the euro crisis, has capitalised on insecurities over refugees with demands for border closures, mass deportations, selective immigration and Germany’s euro exit.
- Source: Forschungsgruppe Wahlen figures from September 1st