Sunday, September 13, 2009

After the Debate: Total Synchronicity

Here are some quick observations from tonight's much-anticipated TV debate between chancellor Angela Merkel and vice-chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her main contender in the Battle for the Bundestag and the Chancellory.

1. Polls conducted immediately after the duel have produced contradictory results. While a ZDF poll saw Steinmeier as the winner (albeit by a narrow margin), a survey by Stern magazine gave the victory to the chancellor (by an equally narrow margin). In both polls, viewers said that Steinmeier surprised them by having performed better than they had expected. Also, both polls indicate that undecided voters favoured Steinmeier's performance over that of the chancellor.

2. Overall, this was a debate by two candidates who, over the years, have so thoroughly synchronized their political agendas and policies that very little room for a real fight was left. On practically all major issues, from Afghanistan to banker bonuses to minimum wages, the differences were either minimal or non-existent. Since 2005, both Merkel and Steinmeier politicians have been forced to sell the same political compromises to their respective sceptical party basis. As a result they almost looked like political twins tonight. The few remaining elements of dispute (such as musing over whether Germany's social market economy needed "new ideas" or a "new start") sounded like lip-service to old party lore, not like a real substantial disagreement.

3. The only real moment of tension came when Merkel offered doubts about the SPD's firmness of conviction concerning the party's strict no to a coalition with Die Linke. Here she touched on the SPD's big dilemma and Steinmeier reacted rather nervously by trying to interrupt her. But she would not have that, silenced him and continued with her point. While he generally looks like chancellor material, at this moment it was absolutely clear who was the chancellor and who was just serving in her cabinet.

4. Those parties offering a real alternative to Grand Coalition policies, the FDP with its pro-business reform platform, and Die Linke with its social welfare populism, were not part of the debate. The debate's hosts had invited only those two people who have a credible chance of becoming chancellor. As understandable as this might be, it makes little sense in Germany's parliamentary system where party constellations are at least as important as the candidates themselves for who forms a government and becomes chancellor.

5. Given the poll results before the debate, Steinmeier needed a very decisive victory in the debate to at least slightly narrow the wide gap between his party and the CDU. If he won, I do not believe that his victory was great enough to get anywhere near that point. This was not Steinmeier's equivalent to the Schröder moment in 2005, when the then-chancellor's excellent performance against Mrs Merkel in the second debate marked a turning point after which the SPD gained a substantial amount of votes.

6. Tonight, Merkel's was a teflon-coated performance. She started more nervously but became more presidential as time progressed. In turn, Steinmeier had a few good improvised lines in the beginning but became more nervous over time. His final statement was long-winded and wordy. Hers was that of a self-assured incumbent, more concise, and more personal.

Will this debate change the political situation for September 27th? Not really, I would guess. By mobilizing a few potential SPD voters it might have increased the chances for a renewed grand coalition a wee bit. But it certainly was not the decisive death blow for a potential CDU/FDP coalition the SPD had been hoping for. This debate leaves everything open. The fog has not lifted.

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