World from Berlin 'Carefully Cultivated Boredom' in Chancellor Debate

Editorialists at major news media are mostly in agreement about three aspects of Sunday night's chancellor debate: It was a dull affair, Peer Steinbrück did well even if his prospects for winning are null and Angela Merkel has hinted she could govern with him.

Merkel and Steinbrück faced off in a televized debate on Sunday night.
AP/dpa

Merkel and Steinbrück faced off in a televized debate on Sunday night.


Who won Sunday night's debate pitting Chancellor Angela Merkel against her challenger Peer Steinbrück? If you have to ask, it was probably the incumbent -- particularly when that incumbent has the kind of substantial lead that Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) currently enjoy over Steinbrück's center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Prior to the debate, the gap was 39 percent for the CDU against 23 percent for the SPD.

Still, the day after the 90-minute tete-á-tete -- the only televised debate scheduled between the two candidates -- Steinbrück appeared to be the one who had emerged victorious. A survey taken immediately after the event found that 49 percent felt the SPD candidate had been more convincing compared to just 44 percent for Merkel. Roughly the same percentage found his arguments to be the better ones, against a mere 38 percent for the chancellor. Over half of undecided voters found Steinbrück to be the more convincing candidate against just 35 percent for Merkel.

For the most part, however, the dominant takeaway from the debate on Sunday was relief that there would only be one of them. There wasn't a single moment during the hour-and-a-half that voters are likely to remember when casting their ballots and the debate often veered away from trenchant attacks to wonky -- and surprisingly civil --discussions of at-times esoteric issues.

That isn't likely to help Steinbrück. As Merkel's former finance minister during the "grand coalition" between Merkel's conservatives and Steinbrück's SPD from 2005 to 2009, he is widely seen as an able steward of the economy. Unfortunately for him, however, Germany's economy is doing just fine these days. He was left trying to highlight his desire to introduce a comprehensive €8.50-per-hour minimum wage ($11.23) and to defend his plan to raise taxes on the country's highest earners. He also warned about a bleak future for Germany's health system -- at a time when the public health insurance scheme is producing multi-billlion euro surpluses.

Even Syria isn't likely to provide Steinbrück a boost. Last week, it looked briefly as though Merkel was going to have to walk a very thin tightrope between staying out of any Western intervention while at the same time supporting the country's allies. But with both Britain and the US now shying away from immediate action, her position has become much more comfortable. Both she and Steinbrück said they would not participate in any intervention without the backing of the United Nations Security Council.

So who won? German commentators debate the point on Monday.

SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:

"The debate can best be characterized as deliberate and carefully cultivated boredom, a mechanical recitation of party platforms with absolutely zero passion to be found anywhere. The result was 0:0 between the two challengers. That was it. This television debate was no model for a lively democracy -- it was a disappointment."

"In the end, both candidates came across as colorless, and that was right in line with how the election has played out so far. Merkel is going into this vote as laid back as can be because she knows that when it comes to likeability, at least, she's got a big edge on her challenger. (If Germans could vote for a chancellor directly, 54 percent say they would vote for Merkel compared to just 28 percent for Steinbrück.) She barely speaks about her CDU party or its platforms. She plans to secure her win solely based on the advantage she has as a popular incumbent chancellor. Steinbrück has nothing in his arsenal with which he can counter that. In fact, his party is no longer even seeking to win -- it is merely trying to get a place at the table, hoping to garner enough votes to possibly join forces with Merkel's party in a grand coalition government. (Merkel's CDU governed together previously with its traditional archrival, the SPD, from 2005-2009.)"

Center-left German newsweekly Die Zeit writes:

"Steinbrück, unlike during previous appearances, did not come off as arrogant and know-it-all. Instead, his confrontation with Merkel was well-prepared and underpinned by statistics -- on several occasions, he confronted Merkel's governmental failings in the areas of minimum wage, healthcare or energy. He did this not in an aggressive fashion, but convincingly, with a certain intensity. When it came to the NSA scandal, Steinbrück claimed that if he had been chancellor, there would have been none of Merkel's beating around the bush."

"Meanwhile, the Christian Democrat leader, who had gone into the debate confidently, perhaps too confidently, reacted with bewilderment, and occasionally became snappy. She was asked about data protection, and whether emails -- which are often sent via American servers -- could be read by the NSA. 'Could be. I don't know,' she answered testily."

"Steinbrück managed to give the impression that he was a man who could govern the country -- and perhaps even do a better job than the current chancellor. … His biggest problem remains, however, that he has no real perspective of gaining power. He repeated previous statements that he would not take part in a grand coalition, as well as confirming he would not lead a coalition that included the Left Party."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"(Steinbrück's) attempts to bring out the kind of confrontation that he so badly needs in this campaign evaporated into nothingness. Merkel smiled away Steinbrück's arguments. Not even the issue of child-care subsidies could break through the sense of order that has pervaded this entire election campaign. The SPD has used its candidate to go on the attack, but the real fire has burned elsewhere -- maybe among the grassroots, maybe among Social Democratic voters, maybe in the living rooms of non-voters, but not in (Steinbrück)."

"That's why Merkel could deflect every attack with calm and routine ... and when her opponent broached the lofty subject of pensions and retirement benefits, she brought things back down to earth. By calling attention to his participation in earlier governments, she tried to take the wind out of his sails. But it wasn't necessary -- because Steinbrück had arrived in the studio without any wind behind him."

"Angela Merkel did and does everything she can to elegantly dodge anything that could create a true debate ... In doing so, the CDU accepts that the voters don't know what they'll actually be embarking on when they vote "Merkel." And that won't hurt her."

The center-left Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"She's trying to lull us? He's over-challenged? Supporters of both camps can now say 'no way'. And both sides are right. There was no loser in the Merkel-Steinbrück debate. The only surprise was Merkel's view. … Merkel and Steinbrück vary only slightly politically -- and only when they have to. In terms of domestic politics, the only thing in this debate likely to raise eyebrows is that fact that Merkel opened a door to the possibility of a grand coalition government together with Steinbrück's SPD after the election in three weeks."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"After 90 minutes, neither candidate was on the floor. Steinbrück, who has so far lagged far behind Angela Merkel in polls, had a chance to show millions of viewers what the SPD's campaign is all about. He showed himself to be both perfectly prepared and a friend of catchphrases. He went after Merkel without offending the lady, and the SPD can be happy with its strategy."

"If not for Angela Merkel, that is. She was also perfectly prepared. For this important night, however, she supplemented her typical 'everything-is-in-good-hands' rhetoric with stateswomanly decisiveness … Steinbrück's closing statement revealed his dilemma: The country is at a 'standstill,' he said, and the SPD could satisfy the longing for a social market economy that would prevent excesses, he said. Sorry, but the chancellor isn't promising anything different. And that is exactly the problem with his sparkling rhetoric and his party."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"The stalemate reflected the secret desire of many voters -- that Germany will be governed by a grand coalition. Steinbrück didn't want to provide any clear answers (about that prospect), but he also didn't tout his desired government constellation of the SPD and the Green Party as ideal, either. Even during his most biting attacks, he still came across like the frog prince speaking to the princess in the Grimms' fairy tale 'The Frog Prince,' … 'I do not want your pearls, your precious stones, and your clothes, but if you'll accept me as a companion and let me sit next to you and eat from your plate and sleep in your bed, and if you'll love and cherish me, then I'll bring your ball back to you.' He could. And the viewers were convinced of that as well."

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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