Three weeks before German elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel will face her rival in a televised debate Sunday, giving Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck a last-ditch chance to revive a limping campaign.
Millions of voters, many still undecided, are expected to tune in to the campaign’s only TV clash, broadcast on five channels, between the two candidates battling for the leadership of Europe’s biggest economy.
“The two candidates could hardly be more different,” said political scientist Ulrich von Alemann of Duesseldorf University. “Merkel, the East German physician, is pragmatic, very cautious, calm. Steinbrueck is very masculine, ironic, likes to attack.”
In his campaign so far, Steinbrueck has struggled to score points against Merkel, who is widely regarded as Europe’s most powerful leader and admired at home for her level-headed stewardship through the eurozone crisis.
Steinbrueck, who prides himself on his political “straight talk”, has repeatedly stumbled over gaffes and missteps, which have earned him mocking media commentary and sniping from increasingly nervous party comrades.
“This duel is of course a chance for Steinbrueck to look stronger than Merkel,” said Berlin political consultant Michael Spreng. But he was quick to add: “Given Merkel’s almost insurmountable lead, it is unlikely this duel will turn around the campaign.”
Merkel has long ago staked her claim to the political middle ground by adopting many centre-left policies, from child care spots to clean energy, depriving her opponent of battle themes and creating an unusually bland campaign.
As if her rival did not exist, Merkel has pointedly refused to mention his name in public.
Spreng, the political consultant, said her strategy has been not so much to rouse her own conservative supporters, but to lull a resigned SPD base into inaction.
“The political scientists call it asymmetrical demobilisation,” Spreng said.
“The aim is to put them to sleep, to sedate them by running a non-polarizing, non-aggressive, non-confrontational campaign and by partially or fully coopting SPD policies. The idea is to make SPD voters stay home on election day.”
For Steinbrueck, the face-off presents a chance to add some spice, raise the stakes in the home stretch to the September 22 vote, highlight party differences and try to awaken the electorate from its summertime slumber.
Contrary to the common perception that post-war Germany’s two mainstream parties long ago met in the political centre, their election platforms differ markedly, said political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University.
The SPD, with its call for a minimum wage and social justice, now has “the most social-democratic platform perhaps since Willy Brandt”, the party’s longtime leader and reformist chancellor who served from 1969 to 74, he said.
While Merkel is the clear frontrunner to win a third term, the real question being debated is what ruling coalition she may be forced into under the parliamentary system.
The latest poll gives her conservatives 41 per cent of the vote -- a strong lead over the combined total of 22 per cent for the Social Democrats and 11 per cent for the SPD’s preferred allies the Greens.
A leftist coalition government is only feasible if the SPD and Greens join forces with the far-left Linke, who scored 10 per cent in the poll, a scenario that the two bigger parties have ruled out.
Another wildcard is the fate of Merkel’s junior partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who scored just five per cent, the bare minimum for re-entry into the lower house of parliament.
Should the FDP crash out, Merkel may be forced into another grand coalition with the SPD, a constellation she previously presided over 2005-09, when Steinbrueck was her finance minister.
Berenberg Bank in an election preview said the most likely scenario, with a 55-per cent probability, is that the Merkel coalition wins another term, followed by a grand coalition with a 25-per cent chance.
Barring a left-wing coalition, which the bank gave a 15-per cent likelihood, it said German policies will not fundamentally change as the Merkel government is already forced to compromise with the main opposition parties who control the upper house of parliament.
“Germany is today governed by an informal coalition of all mainstream parties,” it said.
“The upcoming election will not change this.”