Merkel stays on course for election win despite dull debate
The lack of passion displayed during 90 minutes of what most newspapers dismissed as a dull debate suggested to many that both candidates would be content to continue their "grand coalition" government for another four years.
Berlin -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained on track on Monday to win re-election in two weeks after her rival failed to land a killer blow in a crunch head-to-head live TV debate, analysts said.
Merkel's challenger, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, performed better than expected but came away with a narrow points victory rather than the clear knock-out punch needed to close a double-digit deficit in the polls.
And the lack of passion displayed during 90 minutes of what most newspapers dismissed as a dull debate suggested to many that both candidates would be content to continue their "grand coalition" government for another four years.
According to the centre-left Berliner Zeitung, Steinmeier "was unable -- and seems fundamentally unable -- to muster the necessary brutality and ruthlessness" to score points ahead of the September 27 vote.
"It was more like Tom and Jerry: they both attacked each other but nobody was really hurt," complained the Welt daily.
"Yes we yawn," was the mass circulation daily Bild's verdict, a play on words on Barack Obama's famous "Yes we can" slogan in his 2008 campaign to become US President.
During the debate, the only one in the campaign, one of the moderators described the pair as "like an old married couple," trying in vain to get them to lock horns. Another complained: "This is a duet, not a duel."
Both candidates praised the work of their left-right coalition, with Steinmeier saying: "We have achieved a lot together" and Merkel agreeing they had "worked well together."
This led the influential Bild to conclude in an editorial: "This debate was a signal: Neither Merkel nor Steinmeier would have anything against a continuation of the 'grand coalition'."
The candidates denied this, with Merkel hoping to jettison Steinmeier's Social Democrats to form a centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats.
Both insisted that the grand coalition format was an exception, caused by the indecisive election in 2005 when neither of the two main parties was strong enough to form their preferred union.
Like the debate itself, the polling afterwards proved inconclusive.
A poll for ARD public television showed that 43 percent of voters thought Steinmeier had "won" the debate, with 42 percent believing that Merkel had come out on top.
A second survey put Merkel ahead by 37 percent to 35 percent and a third poll concluded it was a draw.
However, asked whom they would prefer to see as chancellor, Germans overwhelmingly plumped for Merkel, by 53 percent to 38 percent.
Reflecting the colourless nature of the duel, viewer figures were well down on a similar pre-election debate four year ago, with just over 14 million tuning in, compared to more than 20 million in 2005.
Furthermore, 84 percent said the debate would have no influence on where they would put their cross in two weeks' time, suggesting the candidates failed to reach millions of undecided voters.
Political scientist Gerd Langguth of the University of Bonn said the nature of the loveless "grand coalition" kept the debate tepid.
"Merkel and Steinmeier actually just neutralised each other," he told the Passauer Neue Presse, predicting that smaller opposition parties would be the real winners of the lacklustre duel.
Another political analyst, Nils Diederich from the Free University in Berlin blamed the format of the debate, with four journalists posing questions to the two candidates.
"They should have let the candidates discuss things between themselves, focusing on certain topics," he told AFP.
"From that point of view, it was the worst programme of this type that I have ever seen, because of the format," he added.