In German elections, a US flavor

The two main rivals for chancellor meet Sunday in the first-ever US-style one-on-one televised debate.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After Spiderman, Eminem and Starbucks, Germany is about to import another distinctively American phenomenon: the presidential debate.

For the first time, an incumbent German chancellor and his political challenger will engage in US-style one-on-one live television debates, with each hoping for a boost before voters go to the polls on Sept. 22.

Unprecedented, the debates have become a highlight in an otherwise ho-hum election campaign. Some observers worry, however, that the verbal matches are a sign that personality is edging out substance.

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The first debate, on Sunday, will be followed by a second "TV duel," as local media describe the encounters, on Sept. 8. RTL television, which will host the first debate, even has a ticker on its Web site counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds until the first debate.

German media are billing the face-off between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Clintonesque Social Democrat, and his often wooden center-right challenger Edmund Stoiber as a German version of the 1960 debate between a youthful John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Although Mr. Schröder is widely seen as the favorite in the debates, his Social Democratic Party (SPD) is trailing Mr. Stoiber's Christian Democratic (CDU) opposition in polls ahead of the election.

Describing Germany's fascination with the debates and their potential to sway opinion ahead of the election, the weekly magazine Stern called them "the mother of all battles." Pollsters predict the debates could sway only between 1 and 1.5 percent of voters, however.

Critics warn that the focus on the candidates and their personalities detracts from the real issues that are of concern to voters, especially the weak economy and unemployment at around 10 percent of the workforce.

For years, political observers have criticized a creeping Americanization of German politics. The trend is characterized by an embrace of show tactics, spin, and greater focus on personalities than on party manifestoes. Although the German campaign may appear to be a race between two candidates, that concept is foreign to the German political system. Germans vote for parties and not individuals. The Americanization of the German election campaign is creating a conflict between media-driven candidates and Germany's multiparty system. Voters, say analysts, are the losers.

Hermann Rudolph, publisher of the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, says the "sharpened focus on these two chancellor candidates is something new but makes no sense in our system." The debate, he says, "is being transformed into an event that inevitably diminishes the importance of the traditional election campaign."

Personalities have always played a role in German election campaigns. But Germany has never come closer to an American-style horse race. In the past, public debates included the main candidates from all parties represented in parliament. This time, the smaller parties that play key roles in determining which coalition forms a government are being eclipsed.

"It does look very American," says Clay Clemens, a government professor at William and Mary College. "What's changed is the way in which the media have treated it as a two-party race. The focus just on Schröder and Stoiber is saying that Germany is choosing between just these two guys."

The smaller parties are fighting back. The Greens, with their roots in environmentalism, pacifism, and feminism, long rejected traditional campaigns with a focus on individual popular candidates. But Green leader Joschka Fischer is foreign minister in the current government and Germany's most popular politician. Hoping to capitalize on his popularity in a tight race for third place, the former anti-party party has cast off all reservations and nominated Mr. Fischer officially as its lead candidate.

The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) are even going a step further than their rivals the Greens. Until 1998, the FDP was Germany's third force, playing kingmaker in creating coalition governments with both the CDU and the SPD for three decades. Hoping for a comeback, and fearing that the media focus on the Schröder-Stoiber debates would hurt its chances, the FDP chose its chairman, Guido Westerwelle, as its own chancellor candidate. That marks the first time that the FDP is sending its own candidate into the race, though the move is largely symbolic because the FDP does not have enough public support to become the lead party in a coalition.

Peter Loesche, a political scientist at Göttingen University, says that despite the efforts of politicians and the media to create the appearance of a presidential race, Germany's parliamentary system is not under threat. Whether facing controversial foreign policy decisions, such as the deployment of German troops, or the domestic debate over labor market reform, Mr. Schröder does not have the independence and powers of an American president. He must seek the support of his party and his coalition partner, and if he loses it, the coalition majority in parliament can remove him without having to call an election.

"The chancellor often enjoys acting like an American president," says Mr. Loesche. "But the parties play a greater role here. The parties exercise permanent control."

Ironically, polls show that while German voters prefer Mr. Schröder as chancellor, who is ahead of Mr. Stoiber in the influential Election Research Group popularity poll by some 13 points, the same voters prefer Mr. Stoiber's party. That trend was confirmed again by the Allensbach polling agency in projections published this week which put the Christian Democrats ahead by nearly eight percentage points.

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