Steinbrueck’s Jabs Fail to Knock Out Merkel in Election Debate

German election challenger Peer Steinbrueck probably failed to close Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lead in the polls during the campaign’s only debate, as they sparred over the economy and the euro-region debt crisis.

Steinbrueck sought to score points against the chancellor, saying that her approach to tackling the crisis that dominated her second term has failed while domestic inaction has resulted in a “standstill.” Just one of three spot polls taken after the 90-minute exchange found Steinbrueck the winner.

“Steinbrueck needed a very clear victory to get out of his slump and he didn’t score that victory,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said by phone. “Both had strong and robust moments,” meaning “there was no clear winner.”

Three weeks before the Sept. 22 vote that will determine who takes the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, polls show Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats trailing Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc by 15-19 percentage points.

Steinbrueck, whose campaign of social justice has struggled to take off after setbacks earlier this year, seized on the crisis to go on the offensive, saying he’d back away from her application of austerity to southern Europe in “deadly doses.” Merkel, who said for the first time that Greece may need more aid, cited narrowing bond spreads in the euro area as evidence that her course is right for Europe and for Germany.

No Game-Changer

A Forsa poll for RTL television taken immediately after the debate showed Merkel the winner by 44 percent to 43 percent for Steinbrueck. An FG Wahlen survey of 1,188 viewers had 40 percent for Merkel and 33 percent for Steinbrueck, with 27 percent saying there was no difference. An Infratest poll for ARD television gave Steinbrueck 49 percent to Merkel’s 44 percent.

“It was roughly even, which at the very margin is good news for Steinbrueck,” Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, said in a telephone interview. “His personal popularity gap to Merkel, which is huge, may narrow a bit. But I don’t think this will be a major game-changer for party preferences.”

The two candidates jousted over pensions, the NSA spying affair, Germany’s energy shift, taxes and minimum wages, each frequently interrupting the four moderators while largely refraining from personal attacks on the other.

Germany needs “a new beginning,” said Steinbrueck, Merkel’s first-term finance minister. “We’ve been standing still for four years. A lot of things didn’t get done.”

Economic Strength

Merkel championed her steering of Germany through the crisis that spread from Greece, saying her stance of tying aid to conditions forces the euro area to become more competitive.

The German economy is “strong” with more in employment than ever before and higher tax revenue than at any time, she said, warning that Steinbrueck’s platform of tax increases threatened to put German prosperity at risk.

“We can ensure the economy continues to move upwards,” Merkel said. “Naturally the job isn’t over. Naturally there are many worries and problems, but we have demonstrated that we can cope in a difficult period.”

Support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its CSU Bavarian sister party dropped a percentage point to 39 percent in an Emnid poll for Bild am Sonntag newspaper yesterday. Her Free Democratic coalition partner gained a point to 6 percent. Steinbrueck’s SPD dropped two points to 23 percent and its Green party ally had 11 percent, down a point. The Left Party had 10 percent, up two points. Emnid polled 1,851 voters on Aug. 22-28. No margin of error was given.

Greek Needs

The election campaign has been dominated by the debt crisis after Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Aug. 20 that Greece will need more money. Steinbrueck said more Greek aid shows the government’s crisis strategy isn’t working.

Far more emphasis must be placed on bolstering economic growth and stemming record unemployment in the 17-nation euro region, Steinbrueck said. Referring to a program to tackle youth joblessness announced by Merkel earlier this year, he said “the question is what’s come of it.” There is “only the savings club battering Greeks over the head.”

Merkel rebutted the charge, citing the “fortunate” rise in German bond yields and lowering of yields in other states as evidence “that the euro area is becoming more competitive.” While signaling that her policy wouldn’t change in a third term, she echoed Schaeuble on Greece’s aid needs. Schaeuble is due to brief parliament’s Budget Committee on Greece in Berlin today.

“Nobody knows precisely how things will develop in Greece,” Merkel said. “My job as chancellor is to ensure that the reform pressure on Greece doesn’t let up.” She said “it’s possible that there will be a new aid package for Greece. Nobody knows how big.”

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