Three weeks before elections, Angela Merkel appears to be heading for a possible fourth term as chancellor of Germany, with her rival Martin Schulz failing to halt her advance in a crucial televised debate.
Sunday’s TV clash had been touted as Schulz’s last chance to sway millions to his cause and halt a devastating popularity slide.
But polls following the 90-minute showdown gave Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) since 2000, a clear edge over Schulz, a former European Parliament chief and leader of the Social Democratic Union Party of Germany (SDP).
“Merkel came out as sure, Schulz was hardly able to land a punch. The candidate is an honourable man. But being honourable alone won’t make one chancellor,” wrote Heribert Prantl, Sueddeutsche daily commentator.
There will be no further televised debates in the run-up to the election.
With millions of voters still undecided, Schulz had been looking to the debate to erode the commanding 17-percentage point lead of Merkel’s CDU party and their Bavarian CSU allies ahead of the September 24 polls.
Merkel’s tough line comes after Ankara arrested two more German nationals for “political reasons”, according to Berlin.
The plunge in bilateral relations began after Germany sharply criticised Ankara over the crackdown that followed last year’s failed coup attempt there.
The pair also debated security, with Merkel saying Germany has learned from past mistakes regarding how to prevent attacks.
“Over 90 minutes of debate, [Schulz] went on the offensive against Angela Merkel and her actions as chancellor,” said in a statement.
“Opinion polls suggested that viewers thought although Schulz had been more aggressive, they thought Merkel had been more competent and more persuasive.”
Merkel “appeared to be more competent than in any previous duel. She was not brilliant, but sure. Schulz, on the other hand, was so stiff and dowdy, like Merkel was in previous duels”, wrote Prantl.
Munich’s Merkur daily also noted that “in an increasingly uncertain world which is led by testosterone-filled leaders, people don’t know what Schulz wants. But they know what Merkel can do.”
Members of Merkel’s party feted the results, with Julia Kloeckner tweeting: “Angela Merkel: Stateswoman. Schulz: election candidate.”
But Schulz’s Social Democrats equally applauded the man who is known to be a fiery orator.
Manuela Schwesig, Mecklenburg-Pomerania state premier said: “Martin Schulz has shown that he can be chancellor.”