German candidates clash on euro and taxes in tight TV duel
By Noah Barkin and Stephen Brown (Reuters)BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger in this month's German election clashed over the euro, tax policy and U.S. spying in a television debate on Sunday that produced no clear winner.
September 2, 2013, 2:53 pm TWN
The only TV duel of the campaign, watched by an estimated 15 million viewers, was one of SPD candidate Peer Steinbrueck's last chances to change the momentum in a race in which he has trailed the popular Merkel from the very start.
He accused the conservative chancellor, who is seeking a third term in the September 22 vote, of crushing southern European countries with austerity, failing to properly manage an exit from nuclear energy and overseeing a rise in low wage jobs.
"For four years we have been at a standstill. I want to change this," Steinbrueck said.
Merkel, 59, said SPD plans to raise taxes would put Germany's prosperity at risk, and noted that Steinbrueck's party had supported her euro policies throughout the crisis. Smiling, she turned to him and said: "You voted for everything."
Dressed in black, both candidates appeared relaxed, made no obvious gaffes and appeared to have good grasp of the issues.
Merkel, wearing a twisty necklace in the colors of the German flag, turned often to speak directly to her challenger, while Steinbrueck stared straight ahead at the panel of four questioners, which included cult talk show host Stefan Raab.
A poll by Infratest Dimap conducted after the debate gave Steinbrueck the edge, with 49 percent of respondents saying he won and 44 percent backing Merkel. Another poll by Forsa put Merkel slightly ahead, 44 versus 43 percent.
The 66-year-old former finance minister is known for his quick wit, but also for a know-it-all tone that can make him seem arrogant. His challenge in the debate was to criticize Merkel's policies without appearing overly aggressive, and in that he largely succeeded.
"Steinbrueck may have added a few points," said political scientist Juergen Falter. "The question is whether it is enough to mobilize voters for the SPD."
Some of the sharpest clashes came on the subject of Europe, a topic that had played only a small role in the campaign until a debate flared late last month over whether Greece might require a third bailout after the German vote.
Steinbrueck dismissed Merkel's European policy as a "failure" because of continued recession and sky-high unemployment in the southern euro countries that have had to swallow deep spending cuts in exchange for bailouts.
"I would have followed a different crisis strategy. Of course there must be budget consolidation in these countries, but not a deadly dose," Steinbrueck said.
"Germany once got help too and we must not forget that," he said. "Germany was massively helped after the Second World War with the Marshall Plan."
Merkel retorted that it was under SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that Greece had been allowed to join the euro in the first place.
"As chancellor I have a responsibility to ensure the reform pressure on Greece does not let up," she said. "There could be a new Greek package but nobody knows how big it will be."