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News Analysis: Merkel-Schulz TV duel highlights difficulty of SPD win in German elections
BY 2017-09-05 09:02:30

BERLIN, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz pinned high hopes on Sunday night's televised clash between himself and Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), the only such debate to be agreed to by his incumbent rival before national elections on Sept. 24.

Speaking ahead of the highly-anticipated debate, the SPD candidate was keen to stress its importance in the ongoing race for Germany's chancellorship. Witnessed by millions of viewers and broadcast simultaneously on several channels, Schulz claimed that the duel would enable him to persuade the 40 percent of voters who were still undecided according to polls.

SPD faction leader Thomas Opperman was equally vocal in expressing his confidence ahead of the debate that Sunday's TV program would "play a crucial role" in the final stage of his party's campaign. He boasted that the SPD would experience a "change in polls" and "surely...win the election".

Fast-forward to the candidate's closing statements at the debate on Sunday, however, and much of that earlier confidence on display had evaporated.

Schulz, usually the better orator than Merkel, stumbled over his words and appeared beset by doubt. The moment was a symbolic one, not because the SPD candidate had performed poorly, but because of the sense of resignation and fatigue provoked by a seemingly calm and unassailable Merkel.

Viewer ship surveys and media reports on Monday suggested that Schulz had failed to grasp what was possibly his last opportunity to turn the election to his advantage. According to a poll by public broadcaster ARD immediately following the debate, 55 percent of respondents thought that Merkel had won, compared to 35 percent who rated Schulz more favorably.

Many commentators said the SPD candidate hadn't been unable to distinguish himself clearly from the Chancellor as the pair agreed on a host of policy issues.

TV moderator Thomas Gottschalk summarized such views on ARD after the debate, saying the two politicians were so similar in substance that it "barely mattered" who became chancellor.

It was not for a lack of trying on Schulz' part, as he repeatedly attempted to put his rival on the spot by asking uncomfortable questions. Addressing the refugee crisis, he accused Merkel of having not coordinated German policy sufficiently with European partners and thus creating an atmosphere of animosity towards Berlin.

The CDU-leader refused to take the bait, however, instead showcasing the nonchalance which has become the signature of Europe's longest-serving stateswoman.

Merkel simply retorted that Schulz' own party had agreed to the position he now criticized as part of the ruling "Grand Coalition". The Chancellor hereby used a tactic which she would resort to at several points in the evening, invoking the SPD's complicity in the same government which Schulz says he wants to replace.

Is the SPD too close to the CDU/CSU (Christian Social Union) for Schulz to be taken seriously as an alternative?

This circumstance may well prove to have been the SPD's Achilles' heel and raises the question of whether Schulz has faced an impossible task from the start. The former president of the European Parliament has struggled with the impediment that any attack on recent legislation enacted by the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition could also easily be read as a failure of the very party which nominated him as a candidate.

Schulz and Merkel expound many of the same views which are popular amongst the German electoral middle ground. Both are outspoken proponents of European integration. They favor a rules-based international order for trade and politics, and have not shied away from publicly attacking U.S. President Donald Trump's protectionist and climate change-denying tendencies.

On the subject of refugees, the two candidates are well aware of the challenge recent migration poses to Germany, but reject exaggerated fears of an imminent collapse of German civilization as a result.

Schulz is not a member of the acting government himself, but he has still drawn greater attention to what Merkel has not yet achieved in office, particularly with regard to social justice, rather than her record as Chancellor. More recently, he has also launched a series of personal attacks on his competitor in the hopes of galvanizing voters.

"There are many issues where people have the feeling that Merkel is out of touch," the SPD candidate told ARD during an interview. He accused Merkel of lacking the courage to engage in a real debate after the Chancellor rejected proposals allowing for greater spontaneity during the pair's televised discussion.

The risk Schulz faces with such attempts to confront Merkel is that he may not be seen as a convincing advocate for change. There are certainly many Germans who think that Merkel is indeed aloof and does little to address the country's widening socio-economic inequality.

Unfortunately for the SPD, however, those who want to prevent her fourth term in office are more likely to turn to more extreme, and seemingly more authentic, opposition parties such as the Left (Linke) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) parties.

For those Germans who crave stability, Merkel is viewed as being more experienced, and hence the more obvious choice.

Schulz can undeniably lay claim to an impressive career in European politics. He was one of the most assertive presidents of the European Parliament since its creation and won respect from across political and geographical divides. Compared to Merkel, however, he is a relative newcomer on the political stage.

An example of this dynamic was visible during Sunday's debate, when Schulz pressured the Chancellor to take a firmer stance on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by asserting that he would cancel Turkey's EU accession talks once in office.

While Merkel agreed in principal in her response, she lectured Schulz that he would not be able to take such a decision unilaterally and would first have to secure support from Germany's European partners.

HOPING FOR "CORBYN EFFECT"

As a consequence of Schulz's difficulty to appeal to voters who are either enthusiastic or disappointed with the current government, the SPD candidate has long trailed behind Merkel in opinion polls.

Despite slight recent gains, a recent Stern RTL Wahltrend survey gave the CDU/CSU 38 percent of voter support while the SPD was endorsed by 24 percent of respondents.

When asked whom respondents would elect directly as chancellor, Merkel continued to enjoy a comfortable lead. Fifty percent of those polled supported the incumbent German leader, compared to 23 percent support for the SPD candidate.

Germany, it seems, has already capitulated to its leader of more than eleven years. Schulz' best hope may therefore be that the widespread complacency over the Chancellor's electoral prospects lulls voters and leads to a surprise defeat, similar to the unexpected electoral gains achieved recently by the British Labor party's Jeremy Corbyn over the Conservative Party government of Theresa May.

Schulz was one of the first politicians to praise Corbyn as an example for the SPD to follow, but there are reasons to doubt whether his success can be replicated.

Unlike Germany's consensus-driven politics of proportional representation, Britain has a First-Past-The-Post electoral system which encourages high levels of ideological polarization and swings from one extreme of the policy spectrum to the other.

Notably, even though the British Conservatives lost their majority, they secured 40 percent of the popular vote -- a tally which the CDU/CSU would be more than happy to achieve on Sept. 24.

(Editor:Li Zhaoqi) (From:xinhua)
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