Chancellor Angela Merkel fended off competition from rival Martin Schulz Sunday night as the two leading candidates went head-to-head in their only televised debate ahead of this month's German election.
The incumbent emerged in the lead following a 97-minute duel, which focused on the European migrant crisis, Turkey's accession to the EU, and the handling of President Donald Trump. A survey conducted by Infratest Dimap moments after the show indicated that Merkel was viewed as more convincing by 55 percent versus 35 percent for Schulz.
Merkel made clear her distinction from Trump and what she called "major differences" in their stances on climate change and his response to the race-fueled violence in Charlottesville. However, she insisted that Germany would work closely with the U.S. president to find a solution to growing tensions with North Korea.
"I don't think that one can solve this conflict without the American president," Merkel noted. She said she would speak to Trump as well as his counterparts in Russia, China, Japan and South Korea over the coming days as allied nations try to strike a resolve to end a series of missile tests by North Korean President Kim Jong Un.
Schulz, who leads the opposing Social Democratic Party (SPD) took a tougher line on Trump, criticizing him for "bringing the world to the brink of crisis with his tweets." He said that Germany should focus on forming closer ties with the president's domestic U.S. opponents, as well as Mexico, Canada, and Europe.
The pair also came to a head over Europe and the region's continued migrant crisis. Schulz accused Merkel of straining relations with European partners and failing to properly consult them before taking action, causing hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to arrive in Germany. The move hurt Merkel's campaign briefly at the start of the year and was a boon for Schulz, but she has since recovered ground in public opinion.
Despite their clashes, observers noted a general compatibility in the rivals' approach, prompting ARD television commentator, Rainald Becker, to describe the showdown as "more a duet than a duel." On Turkey, the pair appeared to agree that it should not be accepted into the EU, despite continued attempts by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Schulz's hard-line stance on Turkey, which Germany accuses of human rights breaches, led Merkel to say that she would "speak to my (EU) colleagues to see if we can reach a joint position on this so that we can end these accession talks."
This could be harmful to Schulz, however, as a lack of distinction will likely see him struggle to gain ground ahead of the national vote on Sunday September 24.
"The good news from tonight's debate is that at the end of a heated election year in Europe, polarization is very limited among Germany's two largest parties. For Schulz, however, this is a problem," political analysis firm Teneo Intelligence stated in a research note.
"Put differently, the debate highlighted that Merkel and Schulz are compatible enough to lead a grand coalition together; yet it is precisely this impression that narrows Schulz's electoral prospects. This poses the risk that the SPD will not do well enough to make it into government again.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union currently leads a coalition government with the SPD. Given the complex make-up of the German parliament, and Merkel's notable but insufficient lead in the polls, another coalition is likely. This could either be with the CDU and the SPD, or the CDU and one or more of the smaller parties. Polling ahead of Sunday's debate saw the CDU emerging triumphant with 38 percent of votes to the SPD's 24 percent.
The debate is thought to have narrowed the number of undecided voters by 10 percent, yet almost 40 percent of Germans remain unsure which way their vote will swing in less than three weeks.
According to Peter Matuschek, head of political research at Forsa Polling, this segment of the electorate is unlikely to swing the vote though. In recent elections, voter turnout has struggled to rise beyond around 70 percent.
"I wouldn't overrate the number of undecided voters because, as we know, there is about a quarter who will not show up and will not turn out to vote. So we are at about 10-15 percent really undecided voters and Schulz would have needed a very good day to turn this around," Matuschek told CNBC Monday.
"After last night I would expect him to get maximum three percent more for the SPD, which is not very likely but it's still possible."
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