The World From Berlin: Informal Debate Marks Start of Election Season

Angela Merkel went head to head for the first time with Peer Steinbrück, the opposition's candidate for the Chancellery in next year's general election, in the German parliament on Thursday. On the editorial pages Friday, German commentators note the candidates have so much in common politically that Social Democrat Steinbrück will have to work hard to show how he's different.

During a Thursday session in parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and challenger Peer Steinbrück exchanged the first salvoes in the 2013 election campaign. Zoom
DPA

During a Thursday session in parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and challenger Peer Steinbrück exchanged the first salvoes in the 2013 election campaign.

In his first public exchange with incumbent Angela Merkel since his nomination last month as the center-left, opposition Social Democratic Party's (SPD) official chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrück attacked the German leader's handling of the euro crisis, claiming that "Germany has never been so isolated" and accusing her of duplicity in allowing members of her coalition to "bully" Greece.

"It was a grave mistake that you allowed your coalition to launch a bullying campaign against Greece's membership in the euro zone. You didn't intervene, you didn't speak out for Europe and you vacillated," he said.

"Neither Helmut Kohl nor one of his predecessors would have permitted a European neighbor to be abused for that kind of domestic political dealing," he added. The Social Democrat also admonished Merkel for her silence over the fact that efforts to safeguard the common currency, including rescuing Greece, are going to cost taxpayers a lot more money than the government has so far let on.

Steinbrück, who served as finance minister in Merkel's grand coalition government, comprised of her conservative Christian Democrats and the SPD from 2005 to 2009, gave his speech directly after an address by the chancellor on European policy before she departed Berlin for a European Union summit in Brussels.

Merkel took the opportunity ahead of the summit to call for stronger central powers to intervene when member states break budget rules and to reject demands from Berlin's partners for the quick creation of a pan-European bank supervisory body.

The chancellor also called for the creation of a "a new element of solidarity" in the form of a European investment fund that would provide money to EU member states, largely in Southern Europe, that are required to reform their budgets while at the same time financing economic growth and job creation.

Editorialists at Germany's biggest newspapers are sharply divided in their assessment of the unofficial debate's content, although there is broad consensus that neither Merkel nor Steinbrück was able to gain the edge over the other.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Merkel and Steinbrück served up a decent debate. They were both fair and both managed to make their points: Merkel conveyed what had been achieved after two years of euro bailout programs and Steinbrück the failures. Anyone who thought there wasn't much difference between the two was taught better. After some initial fumbling, the chancellor showed focus and commitment. However, her rival is and will remain the more elegant orator."

"The fact that this was a formal government address limited Merkel's maneuvering room, putting her at a disadvantage because she is forced to speak first. The speaker of the opposition is permitted to respond in a more lively way, and Steinbrück made the best of this. The harshest attack against the chancellor was that the lack of respect she suffers is even worse within her party than it is elsewhere in Europe. In its dealings with Greece, Steinbrück complained, there has been a cacaphony in the coalition -- with a lack of leadership and at times insensitive confrontations that have damaged Germany's position in the EU."

"Ultimately, Merkel stayed true to herself. With such high public approval ratings, why shouldn't she? Steinbrück, meanwhile, found the balance between an oppositional attack and the gravitas of a candidate who would like to govern."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"It's at times like this that parliamentary debates can be fun: The chancellor and her challenger used their first stand-off to engage in a top-notch debate. Merkel's respect for Steinbrück was evident as she delivered a few rhetorical surprises: Emotions and an almost visionary agenda. The chancellor, who once tackled politics with the dry reason of either a scientist or a power pragmatist, is now referring to the 'bloody battlefields of Europe' and saying that the euro 'is far more than just a currency. Steinbrück, meanwhile, resisted the temptation to respond with the flippancy he copied from former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. It's no easy task for Merkel's rival to find the right way of challenging the chancellor, given that she is loved and revered by Germany. Fatigue towards Merkel has not set in in the way it once did when Kohl was voted out of office in 1998."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"If the battle between Merkel and Steinbrück for the Chancellery carries on in the same civilized, quiet and plodding vein as the candidates' first 'debate' in parliament on Thursday, one might soon start longing for candidates like Frank-Walter Steinmeier (a former SPD chancellor candidate) and Sigmar Gabriel (the head of the SPD national party). Steinbrück didn't look as though he had high hopes of getting an edge in over the chancellor in a discussion of European policy. His rejection of the government's policy statement repeated the standard SPD line which in essence managed to topple Kohl but will not precipitate Merkel's fall: Nothing should be done too differently, but a lot should be done better."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Steinbrück kicked off the election contest with a speech that revealed a lot about his strengths but even more about his weaknesses."

"After a sincere, forceful and dignified performance from Merkel, in which she frequently struck an unusually caring tone, Steinbrück came across as a glib opponent, giving himself a noticeably easy ride and steering clear of any suggestion of self-criticism."

"And Merkel? She sat there ... and made clear with her body language just how afflicted she is even by what were clearly attacks on the part of Steinbrück. She came across as lonely and thin-skinned. Despite its considerable services to the country, this coalition just hasn't managed to coalesce as a government. The members are still strangers to each other and they stalk each other rather than support one another."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"This first rhetorical exchange which addressed the key issue of the 2013 election showed that Steinbrück can do one thing that neither Steinmeier nor Gabriel is capable of. He can be a rival on the same footing. ... In terms of performance, Steinbrück can give the chancellor a run for her money. Given her aura of political invulnerability, that counts for something."

"On the other hand, Steinbrück is unable to solve the Social Democrats' strategic dilemma. In fact he embodies it. In all the main euro decisions, the SPD voted with Merkel, making it hard to demarcate any clear dissent. But if it is never spelled out that the SPD is pursuing other goals than those of Merkel's government coalition, then the idea of an election campaign between rival parties will remain a theoretical one."

Finally, the business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Both appear to view taking an unequivocal stance on issues as a weakness. ... Merkel never wanted to be known for her clear position. She prefers to make it impossible for her opponents to contradict her, by adopting all positions just to be on the safe side."

"For the time being, Steinbrück has no real idea as to how he can attack the chancellor's 'all positions policy'. ... He does not come across as an opposition candidate but as an economist…..simply stressing what has been done wrong in recent years rather than specifying what he would do differently."

-- Jane Paulick

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