Schulz faces last chance to head off Merkel in German election debate

BERLIN: Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic Party (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz face off Sunday in their only TV campaign debate ahead of this month’s election, which could be the SPD chief’s last chance of chipping back the chancellor’s big opinion poll lead.
Between 15 million and 20 million people are expected to tune into the 90-minute live debate, which will be the fifth TV election debate between German party leaders. It is to be carried by four broadcasters.
The 61-year-old Schulz has everything to gain from the 90-minute debate. The former European Parliament president is seen as a stronger public speaker than Merkel.
A survey released on Thursday by public broadcaster ARD found that 64 per cent of voters expect Merkel to win Sunday’s debate. Only 17 per cent said Schulz would be the victor.
But, after 12 years in power, Merkel has everything to lose, with election campaign debates around the world often resulting in government chiefs losing some of the aura of authority associated with their office.
Still, many analysts are sceptical whether the debate, which will be presided over by four well-known TV moderators, will result in any dramatic change of course in the election.
“Earlier debates have shown that a large part of the viewers already have a preference for one or the another candidate and are very selective about the discussion,” Matthias Jung, from Mannheim-based pollster Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, said.
While several controversial issues have been removed from the election agenda, many of the themes that are likely to be raised during the debate have already been rehearsed during what has been a lacklustre election campaign.
This includes: The political power of the nation’s car industry in the wake of diesel emissions scandal; post-election coalition possibilities; the refugee crisis; as well as terrorism and public safety.
On the international front, the themes could include: Russia and Ukraine; future European reforms; as well as how to deal with US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has regularly lashed out at Germany.
The 63-year-old Merkel this week also shrugged off claims that she had attempted to lay down conditions for the format of Sunday’s TV duel, insisting that she was looking forward to the debate.
But Schulz is having none of it.
“The CDU has a concept, that is, Angela Merkel,” Schulz said. “And we have a concept for the future of this country’s next generation.”
Nonetheless, with the campaign entering its final weeks, Schulz has also stepped up his attacks on Merkel, claiming in a TV interview last weekend that Merkel was out of touch with voters and that she had knuckled under pressure from Erdogan.
“More and more people are noticing how aloof she is,” Schulz told German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.
“That’s the kind of aloofness that will mobilize my voters,” said Schulz, a former European Parliament president. — dpa