German Social Democratic chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck goes into today’s television debate with Angela Merkel seeking to give his campaign fresh impetus three weeks before the federal election.
Even as Syria eclipsed the international agenda, in Germany the race for the Sept. 22 ballot has been dominated by the euro-area debt crisis, as Merkel and Steinbrueck traded barbs over her strategy of tying aid to conditions. With Steinbrueck’s SPD trailing Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc by 14-19 percentage points, the onus is on the challenger to make his mark.
The 90-minute debate, the only televised clash between the two candidates, starts at 8:15 p.m. in Berlin and will be broadcast live on four channels: ZDF, ARD, RTL and ProSieben.
“Steinbrueck will try to find a weak point to attack Merkel, but even on the core Social Democratic terrain of social justice Merkel can point to record low unemployment,” Joachim Trebbe, a professor of media analysis at the Free University in Berlin, said in a telephone interview. “That’s a crucial plus for her and her party.”
Both candidates came out on Aug. 30 against military engagement in Syria, effectively removing it as a campaign topic in the run-up to the debate. Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, have instead focused on the relative health of the Germany economy and signs of recovery in the broader euro zone almost four years after the crisis emerged in Greece.
Steinbrueck has focused his campaign on social justice, saying that Merkel has done nothing to arrest a widening gap between rich and poor in Germany.
Germany under Merkel “is at a standstill,” he said Aug. 29. His priorities for his first 100 days in office include a flat-rate minimum hourly wage of 8.50 euros ($11.28), reform of the pensions system, equal pay for men and women working in the same job and tax increases for the richest in society.
Support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, dropped a percentage point to 41 percent in an Infratest poll released on Aug. 30, while her Free Democratic coalition partner held at 5 percent. Their combined tally of 46 percent would probably be enough for a rerun of the current coalition if repeated on Election Day.
Steinbrueck’s SPD gained two points to 26 percent while its Green party ally dropped a point to 11 percent. The Left Party had 8 percent, down one point. Infratest polled 1,500 voters on Aug. 27-28. No margin of error was given.
Merkel, who routinely omits to mention Steinbrueck by name during her campaign rallies across the country, has prepared thoroughly in advance of the debate, according to a person familiar with her tactics who spoke on condition of anonymity because the event has yet to take place. The chancellor is ready to confront Steinbrueck on her crisis handling, the person said.
Steinbrueck rehearsed his performance in a professional television studio over two days in the middle of this month, Spiegel Online reported.
Both sides have agreed to the discussion fields “labor and social matters,” “security” and “money and finances.” Steinbrueck will have the first word and she will have the last.
Merkel’s crisis course received a fillip on Aug. 30 as figures showed economic confidence in the 17-nation euro region rising to a two-year high in August. That added to German economic growth of 0.7 percent in the second quarter that helped haul the bloc out of its longest-ever recession and unemployment of 6.8 percent, near a two-decade low.
The German-led path of aid in return for reforms and debt cuts “is showing the first signs of success,” Merkel said at a campaign rally in the western town of Minden on Aug. 29. “But if we go about it wrongly then this success can be destroyed.”
Germany’s crisis policy has become the crucible in which the election may be decided after Schaeuble, a Christian Democrat like Merkel, said that Greece will need more aid. That shows Merkel’s strategy isn’t working and needs to be recalibrated to focus on bolstering jobs and growth, according to Steinbrueck. Merkel says her approach is yielding results. Neither advocates a second debt cut for Greece.
“In terms of big issue politics -- the handling of the debt crisis and now Syria -- Merkel and Steinbrueck are not sufficiently far apart for the debate to make a difference,” said Trebbe of the Free University. With the polls firming up, it shows “there’s little appetite for a change of government,” he said. “That’s a terrific advantage for Merkel.”
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