Merkel declared winner of televised debate, but many still undecided before German vote

Journalists watch a televised debate between German Chancellor and Mr Martin Schulz at a television studio in Berlin, on Sept 3, 2017.
Journalists watch a televised debate between German Chancellor and Mr Martin Schulz at a television studio in Berlin, on Sept 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - The only televised debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main challenger Martin Schulz before German elections later this month appeared not to have swayed many undecided voters on Sunday (Sept 3) about who should be their next leader.

Merkel and Schulz clashed in the 97-minute exchange on refugee policy, Turkey and domestic security. She agreed with his statement that Turkey should not become a member of the European Union, while he expressed doubt about whether President Donald Trump could deal effectively with North Korea's nuclear provocations.

Polls released by Germany's public broadcasters afterward declared Merkel the winner. But polls also have shown that many voters remain uncertain about who could better lead them over the next four years - and there are three weeks to go before they cast their ballots on Sept 24.

A survey published last week showed that nearly half of all German voters, 46 per cent, remained undecided. Winning their support will be crucial for each candidate.

"Merkel Wins TV Duel," Bild, the mass-circulation newspaper, said in its digital edition, citing a poll by the public broadcaster ARD that showed 55 per cent support for the chancellor, compared with 35 per cent for her challenger.

In Freiburg, where a group of residents had been invited to watch the debate, few appeared to be swayed.

Anna Joos told the public broadcaster ZDF that she went in undecided, and saw and heard nothing in the exchange to move her.

Germany's political landscape thrives on consensus. The two main parties have governed together for four years in a coalition led by Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union. This was evident in the many instances during the debate that Schulz, of the centre-left Social Democrats, agreed with her.

For Schulz, who appeared to capture Germans' imagination after he announced his candidacy, sending support for his party above 30 per cent in February, the debate was largely viewed as a chance to claw back that position. The Social Democrats have since dropped to around 24 per cent.

At the beginning of the debate, he challenged her decision to throw open Germany's borders to nearly 1 million migrants in 2015. But Merkel stood by her decision.