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Germany: Schroeder, Stoiber Discuss Iraq, Economy In First-Ever Election Debate

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his challenger in next month's election, Edmund Stoiber, clashed in a U.S.-style television debate last night, the first-ever held in a German election. The two candidates sparred over German support for any U.S. attack against Iraq, as well as their different approaches to the problems of German unemployment and the sagging economy. Opinion polls were inconclusive on who won the debate, but commentators minimized its impact on changing voters' minds.

Munich, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than 14 million of Germany's 80 million citizens watched last night's nationally televised debate between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his challenger in next month's elections, Edmund Stoiber. The debate, patterned after U.S. presidential debates, was a first for Germany but produced few real clashes.

The second and final debate is scheduled for 8 September.

Iraq was the only international issue discussed in the 80-minute forum, which focused particularly on German unemployment -- more than 4 million people, or close to 10 percent of the working-age population, are currently unemployed. The stagnant economy and how to find money to repair damage caused by this month's floods, particularly in East Germany, were also touched upon.

Opinions varied as to which candidate won, but only a quarter of those polled immediately after the debate said it would influence how they vote on 22 September. Uwe Andersen, a political scientist at Ruhr University in Bochum, said the majority of Germans tend to vote by party, not candidate. In the polls, Stoiber's Christian Democratic party is leading Schroeder's Social Democrats by about five points.

In last night's debate, Schroeder renewed his pledge that Germany would come to the aid of its allies when attacked, as the United States was on 11 September. But he said talk in America is now about overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and not about the return of United Nations arms inspectors. "The goal of the United Nations is to ensure the return of the inspectors. The discussion in America now has another goal: It is aimed at Saddam Hussein and his removal. It was not the goal of the United Nations, and cannot be, to replace Saddam Hussein, but only the return of the inspectors. That is a sensible, a correct, goal," Schroeder said.

Schroeder renewed his pledge that a Germany under his control would not supply military forces to help the U.S. if it decides to depose Saddam. "The international coalition against terrorism would be severely endangered if we [attacked Iraq]. We would see it fall apart. We haven't defeated the Taliban. We have not been able to move forward with the reconstruction in Afghanistan. I think it is wrong to consider military intervention in such a situation, in a region as sensitive as the Middle East, and I don't want to create a false impression about Germany [and its plans], creating situations that we cannot back out of. And that is why I said it, and I stand by my statement: no German support [for an attack on Iraq]," Schroeder said.

Stoiber criticized Schroeder for excluding this option. Stoiber said the main goal of policy toward Iraq should be to ensure the return of the UN arms inspectors to determine whether Baghdad possesses weapons of mass destruction. He said Schroeder's public comments have removed some of the pressure on Saddam to comply. "I think it is irresponsible. I think it is irresponsible to dismiss theoretical options and thereby take away pressure from Saddam Hussein. Neither of us wants military means to be used in order to get the inspectors back into the country. Neither of us wants that. But then you can't exclude options or you will be shown on Iraqi television and by Saddam Hussein, against your will, portrayed as a partner. That can't be your purpose. Those are politically unwise actions," Stoiber said.

Stoiber said he agreed with Schroeder that Germany should not embark on what he called "military adventures." On the other hand, Stoiber said, Saddam should be subjected to every form of pressure to ensure the return of UN inspectors.

Asked by moderators whether he would send German troops to join a war against Iraq, Stoiber said he would prefer to avoid a military operation but that any decision should be decided in a European context and not by Germany alone. "This is a question that can be decided only with the European allies. I have made clear that I do not want any military action in Iraq. I want to use every possibility to avoid a military operation. And that means applying pressure. To avoid a military operation, every form of pressure must be applied. And we must do everything, apply every diplomatic, every political pressure, so that the United Nations is successful and the inspectors are allowed to return so that we know exactly what kind of weapons Saddam Hussein possesses," Stoiber said.

Throughout the debate, Stoiber criticized Schroeder for his unsuccessful efforts to reduce German unemployment and for what he called Schroeder's "disastrous" tax-reform policy that, Stoiber argued, is responsible for Germany's stagnating economy.

Stoiber said Germans today are worse off than they were when Schroeder took office four years ago, a comment that sparked one of the few sharp moments in the debate.

Schroeder interrupted immediately to say that, in fact, take-home wages have improved during his four years in power, as compared with what they were under the previous Christian Democrat government. He said the stagnant economy is not the result of his policies but an outcome of the international economic downturn.

As for Stoiber's economic policies, Schroeder said he is "promising everything to everyone" and that his plans will cost the state 70 billion euros ($68 billion). Schroeder accused Stoiber of wanting to put the country into debt to pay for his policies and said the burden of repayment would haunt future generations.

Stoiber argued that the only way to reduce unemployment is to reduce the taxes paid by the middle class and accused Schroeder of pandering to wealthy businessmen by reducing their taxes.

He also criticized Schroeder's plan to delay a promised tax cut to fund the rebuilding of German towns damaged by this month's floods. The government is also seeking ways to give financial aid to farmers and other property owners for flood damage. Stoiber's party supported the government's plan in parliament but said it would replace it with another scheme if it wins the election.