German chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged victorious from a sedate Sunday evening television debate with challenger Martin Schulz.
The Social Democratic (SPD) leader promised to end EU accession talks with Turkey if he wins the September 24th federal election, forcing Dr Merkel on to the defensive over her handling of the crisis with Turkey, which has imprisoned 14 German citizens on political grounds.
But, in a snap poll for ARD television after the 95-minute debate, 55 per cent of viewers found Dr Merkel the convincing candidate.
On the key points of 95-minute debate – refugees, international politics and labour market – the incumbent was ahead, including among one in three undecided voters.
While one in two viewers found Mr Schulz performed better than they expected, the overall numbers are disappointing for Mr Schulz and his party. Sunday evening’s “TV Duel”, aired across four German television stations, was his only direct confrontation with Dr Merkel and a chance to turn the election in which the SPD is trailing by 14 points.
Mr Schulz succeeded in getting a rise out of the famously restrained German leader, accusing her of taking a “softly softly” approach that allowed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan think the Germans were “afraid” to pull the plug on talks.
“Erdogan only understands one language . . . that enough is enough,” he said. Dr Merkel said she backed freezing EU-Turkish talks and funding, but said it would be disastrous if the EU failed to achieve the required unanimity to end talks.
“I have no intention of breaking off diplomatic contacts just because we are in election . . . with tough talking,” she said. With the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) poised to enter the Bundestag in three weeks’ time, with double digit support in polls, Dr Merkel denied that her politics in the euro or refugee crises has strengthened Germany’s extremist fringes.
“I stand for a party of centrist moderation and I am working for sustainable solutions to convince them that my decisions were correct,” she said. But, in a bid to pull back AfD supporters, Dr Merkel promised to introduced immigration law for qualified workers – a move her Christian Democratic Union has long rejected.
On the refugee crisis, that saw more than one million asylum seekers come to Germany in two years, Dr Merkel defended her snap decision on the night of September 4th, 2015, not to close borders to asylum seekers walking from Hungary. “I don’t think water cannons at the borders to hold back thousands of people would have helped,” she said.
The German leader admitted Berlin had done too little in previous years to assist countries already struggling with huge numbers of refugees and, after Islamist attacks in Germany, that more needed to be done to speed up deportations of failed asylum seekers and to crack down on foreign-funded mosques preaching extremist Islam in Germany.
Mr Schulz attacked Dr Merkel’s unilateral decision to keep Germany’s borders opened, as it had allowed Poland, Hungary and others decline to assist.
If that continued, the SPD leader said he would as chancellor push to pull EU infrastructure and agriculture funding from countries that refused to shoulder their share of refugees.
On US president Donald Trump, Dr Merkel declined to answer if she thought the US still played a leadership role in the world. Instead she promised to push the US to come around to the need for a “sensible”, diplomatic solution with North Korea.
On Dieselgate, the chancellor said she was “seriously annoyed” about emission manipulation by car companies but insisted Germany’s legal framework did not allow financial compensation for drivers along US lines. “We are standing before a pile of shards that need to be put back together,” she said, ahead of a meeting on Monday with German mayors to find ways to avoid diesel bans in cities from next year.
Hours before the live debate began, Germans were surprised to see Google ads proclaiming Mr Schulz the victor. When a screenshot of the ad went viral on social media, a red-faced SPD tweeted: “A service provider caused an embarrassing mistake with Google. Not our style. Please forgive the confusion.”