German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is on track win a fourth term in office after polls confirmed she won the first and only televised debate with her main election opponent, Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Union Party (SDP).
A survey for the public broadcaster ARD showed that 55% of viewers thought Merkel was the "more convincing" candidate during the debate, which took place on September 3; only 35% said Schulz came out ahead.
Many observers agreed that Schulz failed to leverage the debate to revive his flagging campaign, while others noted that Schulz's positions on many issues are virtually indistinguishable from those held by Merkel.
Rainald Becker, an ARD commentator, described the debate as, "More a duet than a duel."
"Merkel came out as sure, Schulz was hardly able to land a punch," wrote Heribert Prantl, a commentator at Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The candidate is an honorable man. But being honorable alone will not make him chancellor."
Christian Lindner, leader of the classical liberal Free Democrats, compared the debate to "scenes from a long marriage, where there is the occasional quarrel, but both sides know that they have to stick together in the future, too."
Television presenter Günther Jauch, writing in Bild, said he had hoped to "at least understand what differentiates Merkel and Schulz in political terms. Instead, it was just a conversation between two political professionals who you suspect could both work pretty seamlessly in the same government."
Radio and television host Thomas Gottschalk said that the two candidates agreed with each other too often: "They were both always nodding their heads when the other was speaking."
Germany's general election is scheduled for September 24. If voters went to the polls now, Merkel's CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would win 39%, according to a September 4 Politbarometer survey conducted for the public broadcaster ZDF.
Coming in second, Schulz's SDP would win 22%; the classical liberal Free Democrats (FDP) 10%; the far-left Linke 9%; the Greens 8% and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) 8%.
The poll also found that 57% of respondents said they preferred that Merkel serve another term; only 28% favored Schulz to become the next chancellor. Nevertheless, half of Germany's 60 million voters are said to be undecided, and some pollsters believe that the country's huge non-voting population may determine the outcome.
As Merkel's CDU/CSU is unlikely to emerge from the election with an absolute majority, the 2017 vote effectively revolves around the issue of coalition-building. If current polling holds, Merkel, who has vowed to serve a full four years if re-elected, will have two main options.
Merkel could form another so-called grand coalition, an alliance of Germany's two biggest parties, namely the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Merkel currently governs with a grand coalition and has done so during two of her three terms in office.
Both the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have said they hope to end the grand coalition and lead the government with smaller partners after the September election. After the debate, however, many observers believe a grand coalition between Merkel and Schulz is more probable than not.
Merkel's second option would be to form a three-way coalition with the Greens and the FDP, which served as junior coalition partner to the CDU/CSU for almost half of Germany's post-war history. Merkel has already ruled out forming a coalition with either the Linke or the AfD.
In any event, the policy positions of Merkel and Schulz on key issues are virtually identical: Both candidates are committed to strengthening the European Union, maintaining open-door immigration policies, pursuing multiculturalism and quashing dissent from the so-called far right.
Merkel and Schulz are ardent Europhiles and both are committed to more European federalism. During an August 12 campaign speech in Dortmund, for example, Merkel described the European Union as the "greatest peace project" in history and vowed that she would never turn her back on this "wonderful project."
Previously, Merkel said:
"We need more Europe, we need not only a monetary union, but we also need a so-called fiscal union, in other words more joint budget policy. And we need most of all a political union — that means we need to gradually give competencies to Europe and give Europe control."
Merkel has also endorsed the idea of a European Monetary Fund to deal with sovereign defaults by eurozone countries:
"It could make us even more stable and allow us to show the world that we have all the mechanisms in our own portfolio of the euro zone to be able to react well to unexpected situations."
Schulz has argued that the EU must be preserved at any cost:
"We are at a historical juncture: A growing number of people are declaring what has been achieved over the past decades in Europe to be wrong. They want to return to the nation-state. Sometimes there is even a blood and soil rhetoric that for me is starkly reminiscent of the interwar years of the past century, whose demons we are still all too familiar with. We brought these demons under control through European structures, but if we destroy those structures, the demons will return. We cannot allow this to happen."
Schulz has opposed the idea of holding national referendums on leaving the EU:
"Referendums have always posed a threat when it comes to EU policy, because EU policy is complicated. They are an opportunity for those from all political camps who like to oversimplify things."
Schulz has also voiced optimism that the British decision to leave the European Union would facilitate the creation of a European Army:
"In the fields of security and defense policy, although the EU loses a key member state, paradoxically such a separation could give the necessary impulse for a closer integration of the remaining member states."
During the September 3 debate, Schulz declared that he would end Turkey's accession talks to join the European Union because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarianism. Merkel initially said she opposed such a move but then suddenly changed her mind. Unexpectedly, Merkel said: "The fact is clear that Turkey should not become an EU member."
On the issue of migration, Schulz and Merkel differ on procedure, not principle. During the debate, for example, Schulz accused Merkel of failing to involve the European Union in her 2015 decision to open German borders to more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Merkel said that although some mistakes had been made, she would take the same decision again.
In fact, Merkel and Schulz both agree that there should be no upper limit on the number of migrants entering Germany: "On the issue of an upper limit, my position is clear," Merkel told ARD television. "I won't accept one."
Schulz has said:
"A numerical cap is not a response to the refugee issue, even if it is agreed upon in a European context. What do we do with the first refugee who comes to the European frontier and has no quota available? Do we send him back to perhaps a sure death? As long as this question is not resolved, such a discussion makes no sense."
Schulz believes the European Union should have a greater role in migration policymaking:
"What we need is a European right of immigration and asylum. The refugee crisis shows us clearly that we cannot give a national response to a global phenomenon such as the refugee movements. This is only possible in a European context."
"As much as I wish for good relations with Poland — they are our neighbor and I will always strive for this given the importance of our ties — we can't simply keep our mouth shut in order to keep the peace. This goes to the very foundations of our cooperation within the European Union."
Schulz vowed that, if elected chancellor, he would push for the EU to cut subsidies to countries that do not take in refugees: "With me as chancellor, we won't accept that solidarity as a principle is questioned."
Meanwhile, Merkel's grand coalition backed a law that would penalize social media giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, with fines of €50 million ($60 million) if they fail to remove offending content from their platforms within 24 hours. Observers say the law is aimed at silencing critics of Merkel's open-door migration policy.
Like Merkel, Schulz has reserved his worst vitriol for the anti-immigration AfD, whose leaders he has described as "rat catchers" (Rattenfänger) who are "trying to profit from the plight of refugees." He has also called them "shameful and repulsive."
In an August 22 interview with Bild, Merkel answered critics of her desire to continue in power by saying that the longer she rules, the better she gets: "I've decided to run for another four years and believe that the mix of experience and curiosity and joy that I have could make the next four years good ones."