Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Merkel and Rival Approach a Reckoning ; Sole Televised Debate Provides Opening for Challenger to Catch Up

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Merkel and Rival Approach a Reckoning ; Sole Televised Debate Provides Opening for Challenger to Catch Up

Article excerpt

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic rival Peer Steinbruck were preparing for their sole television debate, which many observers cast as a last chance for Mr. Steinbruck, who has flailed.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Three weeks before Germany's much-anticipated election, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic rival Peer Steinbruck spent Sunday preparing for their sole television debate, which many experts cast as a last chance for Mr. Steinbruck, a veteran politician who has flailed on several fronts since declaring his candidacy last autumn.

Mr. Steinbruck, 66, a former governor of Germany's most-populous state and finance minister in Ms. Merkel's first coalition government from 2005 to 2009, consistently receives around 25 percent in polls asking Germans whom they would elect as chancellor. Ms. Merkel, 59, a trained physicist raised in East Germany and a novice when she entered politics in 1990, is favored by about 55 percent.

Germany's parliamentary system and complex coalition arithmetic, however, mean that Ms. Merkel, very much the center of her conservative party's campaign, could fail to secure enough seats or votes to win re-election at the head of her current coalition with the Free Democrats.

If the two largest blocs, Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, are thus forced into a so-called grand coalition, Mr. Steinbruck has already declared that he will not join.

Whether that is a sign of weariness with Germany's consensus- minded politics is not clear. In the 2009 election, the lone debate between Ms. Merkel and her challenger, Foreign Minister Frank- Walter Steinmeier, was so devoid of sharpness or controversy that commentators afterward labeled it a "duet."

One novelty of Sunday's debate was the inclusion of Stefan Raab, better known as a television entertainer than as a political commentator, as one of the four moderators. Strict rules governing the time allotted to each candidate, however, remained in place.

With a U.S. military strike on Syria appearing less imminent and the crisis surrounding the euro less urgent than a year ago, it was not clear what role, if any, might be accorded to foreign affairs.

Ms. Merkel has deftly ducked controversy so far over the extent to which U.S intelligence agencies have spied on Germans, and she has largely ignored Mr. Steinbruck, who gets no mention at all from her at campaign rallies. …

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