Germany prepares for Federal Elections

Germany goes to the polls on 24th September to elect a new Chancellor. The electoral choice is between Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Martin Schulz of the Socialist Party (SPD).

The most recent public opinion polls show the CDU 17 points ahead of the SPD with a predicted 39% of the vote. Mrs Merkel’s government is currently in a grand coalition between her own Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Martin Schulz’s Socialist Party of Germany (SPD).

Yesterday a live debate during prime time on national German television was held between the two candidates, which attracted more than 30 million viewers.  The TV stations had billed the event as a “Duel” (“Das TV Duell”) and prepared the audience for a controversial and dynamic debate.

The reality fell short of the hype. The “Duel” was lively, but it was mostly an urbane and intellectual European affair, a very polite cerebral debate far removed from the confrontational nature of the TV political shows with which we are familiar from other cultures such as the USA or the UK.

Key issues featuring in the TV debate were social policy, the environment, the economy, employment and immigration. Interestingly the issue dominating British news “Brexit” and the question of the UK leaving the EU did not feature at all, and did not get a single mention in the programme. The main surprise in an otherwise friendly exchange was an assertion from Schulz that he would break off the EU’s accession talks with Turkey if he was elected Chancellor. With the exception of this unexpected controversy, both candidates frequently found themselves nodding in agreement with their opponent. Schulz found it difficult to carve out any substantial issues to differentiate the SPD from the CDU, and it seems that their years together in a grand coalition have blurred the traditional image of the SPD as a workers’ party.

“Das TV Duell” was the only TV debate between the two election candidates that will take place in the run up to the German elections in 3 weeks’ time, and according to most analysts it was comfortably won by Angela Merkel who came across as more convincing, more credible and experienced than Martin Schulz. In a poll after “Das TV Duell”, 55% found Merkel was the stronger candidate, compared with 35% for Schulz.

The debate was immediately followed on German television by talk shows with analysts, political figures and popular TV stars like Thomas Gottschalk to enliven the debate. But far from setting the General election campaign alight, this TV programme may well have prematurely ended the competition and it looks as if Martin Schulz now faces an uphill struggle to claw back public support.

On a positive note, Martin Schulz did come across on TV as being the more aggressive and combative candidate; as the underdog, he was less relaxed and went on the offensive to try to unsettle his opponent. But he scored down on trustworthiness, competence and knowledge about international affairs. In particular, Schulz criticised US President Trump for bringing the world close to the brink of disaster with his policy of issuing statements through “Twitter”; but then his alternative strategy of discussing with Canada and Mexico on how to deal with the threat from North Korea was not entirely convincing.

With three weeks to go, there is always the potential for unforeseen events to unsettle the course of the campaign. But if the immediate reactions to “Das TV Duell” are anything to judge by, then it looks as though Angela Merkel is on course to comfortably win the election and to serve a fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor in the federal elections due to be held in 3 weeks’ time. She has held this office since 2005.