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Cablegate: German Elections: Merkel-Steinmeier Tv Debate

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O 141527Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY BERLIN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5192
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNFRG/FRG COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BERLIN 001136

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: GM PGOV
SUBJECT: GERMAN ELECTIONS: MERKEL-STEINMEIER TV DEBATE
SHOWS MORE DUET THAN DUEL

1. (SBU) Summary: The September 13 90-minute television
debate between Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union
(CDU) party chief Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor and
Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will probably have little lasting
effect on the electorate and shows why neither candidate has
been able to generate public enthusiasm. While both said
they want to end the CDU/Christian Social Union (CSU)-SPD
Grand Coalition, they also praised its achievements and
refrained from personal attacks. This left the press to
argue that the discussion seemed, in the words of Stern
magazine, "more like an appointment for a grand coalition"
than a contest between political opponents. Telephone polls
taken after the debate indicate that Steinmeier did better
than expected (not a tall order in light of his lackluster
campaigning to date) but Merkel remains the public's clear
preference as chancellor. Substantively, the two differed
mostly on taxes, nuclear energy, and the minimum wage. They
showed unity on foreign policy, both in terms of the need for
more international regulation of financial markets and
greater efforts to produce enough stability in Afghanistan to
allow for an eventual withdrawal of troops. End Summary.

2. (SBU) SPD chancellor candidate and Foreign Minister
Steinmeier had the most riding on last night's debate due to
his challenger status and his party's distant second in all
recent opinion polls. Steinmeier rose to the occasion, giving
a relatively feisty performance that left most commentators
describing him as the narrow victor. Telephone polls taken
after the debate show that he did score points with undecided
voters, who according to an ARD-sponsored poll found him more
convincing by a 45-37 percent plurality. A Politbarometer
telephone poll also indicates that he was able to convince
SPD voters that he was the right choice as chancellor, and he
may have helped to shore up SPD support after the party lost
voters to both the Greens and Left Party in recent state
elections. His performance may also serve to mobilize SPD
supporters to vote on election day. Steinmeier emphasized
the need for a Social Democratic presence in the government,
promoting social and economic justice. He argued that a
CDU/CSU coalition with the pro-market Free Democratic Party
(FDP) would primarily serve the interests of big business and
the wealthy. While he praised the Grand Coalition,
Steinmeier argued that the CDU/CSU has blocked SPD proposals
for a national minimum wage and limits on executive salaries.
Despite his claim to be seeking the chancellorship, he
seemed to be arguing more for continuation of the Grand
Coalition and could not directly say how he would put
together a government in which he would be chancellor.

3. (SBU) Merkel began the debate by praising the grand
coalition but insisted that a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition would be
more likely to reduce taxes and produce the economic growth
needed to get Germany out of its current recession. Telephone
polls show that Merkel continues to be viewed as the more
competent of the two by a 51-31 majority but she also did
less well than expected. Merkel talked convincingly about
her accomplishments, but as a Sueddeutsche Zeitung
commentator noted on Monday, made no gestures to the
conservative, southern Catholic voters who are the core of
the CDU/CSU's electoral support. She did look
chancellor-like, however, and as the Politbarometer poll
shows, those who watched the debate still prefer her as
chancellor by a 55-38 percent majority, down somewhat from
the 64-29 percent majority of those polled before the debate.

4. (SBU) Most of the discussion was focused on economic
policy, and perhaps the most interesting story of the night
was the non-debate over Afghanistan. Despite the controversy
during the last two weeks concerning the bombing in Kunduz,
Afghanistan was discussed only briefly. Steinmeier corrected
erroneous press reports this weekend claiming that a Ministry
of Foreign Affairs plan would call for withdrawal by 2013; he
insisted his goal was to create the conditions for withdrawal
but he did not name a date. Merkel agreed with her Foreign
Minister. None of the moderators raised the Afghan report
that claimed 30 civilians had been killed in the bombing, and
the lack of controversy suggests the public is willing to
give the government the benefit of the doubt when German
forces are under threat, particularly when local Afghan
officials have defended German actions.

5. (SBU) COMMENT: Last night's debate, with an estimated
audience of 14.2 million viewers (down from the 21 million
Germans who watched Merkel and Schroeder in 2005), may help
Steinmeier shore up and mobilize his Social Democratic base
but is unlikely to have any real impact on the election. The
race remains too close to call, with the CDU/CSU and FDP
within reach of a parliamentary majority but with no one sure
that, as in 2002 and 2005, a black-yellow coalition may once
again fall short. Merkel's defense of the Grand Coalition

BERLIN 00001136 002 OF 002


and her rather tepid call for a change in government suggests
that she is keeping her options open, and she did little last
night to fire up her base. The election may rest in the
hands of the minor parties and their level of support. Recent
opinion polls indicate a plurality of the public wants a
change in coalitions, but Merkel and Steinmeier seem
unwilling or unable to give a convincing explanation of why
such change is necessary. END COMMENT.

Murphy
Murphy

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