Merkel looking ever more secure


There were no knockout blows and few memorable exchanges but last Sunday’s televised debate between German chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck may be the opposition’s best hope of a game changer ahead of a federal election in just under three weeks. Opinion polls currently agree that no combination of opposition parties will be able to unseat Dr Merkel, whose centre-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberal Free Democrats is on course to squeak back into power with a majority of just two or three seats. If the Liberals cannot provide the numbers, the chancellor could form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats or even break new ground by going into government with the Greens. If Germans were directly electing their chancellor, Dr Merkel would win by a landslide.

Until now, Dr Merkel has appeared to be emulating Germany’s first post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who in 1957 won the biggest election victory in the Federal Republic’s history with the slogan “Keine Experimente” – no experiments. Such appeals to caution play well among the most risk-averse voters in Europe and the chancellor has sought to present herself as the best guarantor of the prosperity Germans have enjoyed while many of their neighbours have faced financial turmoil. She has further curbed any appetite for change by systematically appropriating the opposition’s most popular policies in an effort to demotivate swing voters from showing up to vote.

Most of Sunday’s debate focused on domestic policy but the most significant clash came over the crisis in the euro zone, with Dr Merkel defending her policy of demanding strict austerity as a condition for bailouts in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland. Mr Steinbrueck accused the chancellor of pursuing a failed policy towards the bailout countries and called for a new approach directed at boosting economic growth rather than relentless spending cuts and tax increases. The Social Democrats’ more expansive domestic policies, which include a statutory minimum wage and other redistributive measures, would also serve to boost German domestic demand – a further benefit for the rest of Europe.

Another clash came over the NSA spying scandal, which the chancellor insisted had now been resolved. Mr Steinbrueck asserted that many questions remained unanswered. Both candidates, however, ruled out German involvement in US military action against Syria.

Instant polls showed Mr Steinbrueck to have won the debate by a whisker and he may have succeeded in persuading undecided voters to give his party a second look. He faces a steep climb, however, if Germany is to see any change in its government this month – even if it looks almost certain to retain its unexciting, reassuring and enormously popular chancellor.