Both leading political parties in the German general election claimed victory on Monday following the lone television debate between Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Peer Steinbrück, her challenger, but most of the media called it a dead heat.
Some commentators gave the edge to Mr Steinbrück, in Sunday night’s 90-minute broadcast watched by 17.6m, because he had been expected to come off second-best to the popular Ms Merkel. Most political scientists, however, warned that the effect of the only direct TV confrontation that will be staged during the election campaign would probably wear off before polling day on September 22.
Some unguarded remarks may still come to haunt the contenders. Mr Steinbrück flatly rejected the idea of a “grand coalition” between his centre-left Social Democratic party and Ms Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats. The chancellor accused him of putting his party before his country when it came to forming a government.
But she was tempted to rule out, equally flatly, the introduction of a road toll for passenger cars, which is what her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, wants to impose on foreign drivers using German roads. The CSU has made a car toll for tourists a condition of agreeing to any future coalition, although such discrimination would be barred under EU legislation.
Neither of the lead candidates came up with any new theme that might have a significant effect on voting patterns, the scientists said. But, although Ms Merkel remains well in the lead in terms of personal popularity, the mathematics of forming a future coalition government are still finely balanced.
“Most people thought that Ms Merkel would win, so many people will have concluded that Mr Steinbrück did better than expected,” said Oskar Niedermayer, politics professor at Berlin’s Free University. “That may affect their opinion of the candidate, but I don’t think it will have a very big effect on the outcome of the election.”
Andreas Busch, of Göttingen university, said Mr Steinbrück had “performed very well. He was concise, and not too aggressive. She had the most to lose. He could only win because he came from so far behind.”
One poll for ARD, the first German public television channel whose broadcast of the debate was watched by more than 10m, found that 49 per cent of viewers deemed Mr Steinbrück “more convincing”, against 44 per cent who said the same of the chancellor. Some 60 per cent said the challenger did better than expected, while just 17 per cent thought he had done worse.
ZDF, the second public TV channel, and RTL, a private TV station, concluded that Ms Merkel had “won” the debate, although by a narrow margin.
“Overall, Mr Steinbrück may have been in front, but Ms Merkel was in front for personal qualities such as sympathy and competence,” said Professor Jürgen Falter of the university of Mainz. “That is what matters at the polls.”
Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU is currently scoring between 39 and 41 per cent in the opinion polls with the SPD trailing below 25 per cent.
“To have an effect (Steinbrück) would have had to be a clear winner, or he had to set a theme that would shift the debate in the next three weeks. I didn’t see that,” said Prof Niedermayer.