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Germany: Schroeder, Stoiber Debate Military Support for U.S. Action Against Iraq

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his challenger in the 22 September election, Edmund Stoiber, clashed in a televised debate last night. One of the main points of contention was whether German-American relations have been damaged by Schroeder's declaration that he will not commit German forces to a possible war against Iraq. Stoiber took a more nuanced position, calling for a UN mandate backed by the European Union. Polls taken after the debate showed support for Schroeder's positions on foreign-policy issues, but Stoiber won more points for his employment and economic policies.

Munich, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faced his challenger, Edmund Stoiber, in the second of two U.S.-style televised debates last night.

The most recent polls indicate that since the first debate two weeks ago, Schroeder and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) have gained in voter confidence and are now level with Stoiber's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Last night's debate was aimed particularly at the estimated 15 to 25 percent of voters who remain undecided.

The stagnant economy and high rate of unemployment remain the number-one issues for Germans ahead of the 22 September election, but the question of support for the U.S. position on Iraq is growing in importance. Polls suggest that between 66 to 75 percent of Germans oppose Berlin's participation in any possible war against Iraq.

In last night's debate, Schroeder and Stoiber clashed on whether Schroeder's refusal to join the U.S. in its bid to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has damaged U.S.-German relations. Schroeder has said frequently that he will not commit German troops to an attack against Iraq, even with a United Nations mandate.

Stoiber and the Christian Democrats say they oppose a solo U.S. offensive but have not made clear their position on the use of German troops. Stoiber says Germany should coordinate its position with the rest of the European Union and not take an individual decision.

Stoiber said he advocates first a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq: "I am telling you -- a solo initiative by the Americans does not have our support. However, a decision by the United Nations on the return of the inspectors -- that is what I and my friends want first."

At one point, Schroeder grew impatient with his challenger's reluctance to say clearly whether or not the Christian Democrats would offer military support to the U.S. if the opposition comes to power on 22 September. "Just say yes or no -- that's the question," said Schroeder. "This is a fundamental question of war and peace."

Stoiber replied again that he opposes the use of military force against Iraq, but said that it should not be excluded as a theoretical possibility.

Schroeder denied that his position against any German participation in a war with Iraq is simply an election ploy. He said his position will remain the same after the election: "We are in a war against international terrorism; the Taliban has not been beaten. We need the cooperation of the international coalition [in this war]. That would be broken [by an attack on Iraq]. And we need regional stability. And therefore -- once again, absolutely clearly and without any 'ifs' or 'buts' -- I am against military intervention in Iraq, and Germany will not participate under my leadership."

Stoiber sharply criticized Schroeder for failing to telephone U.S. President George W. Bush privately to explain his position, instead of bringing their differences into the open. He said all previous German chancellors would have spoken with the U.S. president first, before going public. "In my view, you have damaged the German-American relationship," Stoiber said. "And that is also the view of all commentators."

Schroeder denied the charge. He said the current differences "are not a danger to the friendship of individuals or to that of our peoples." Schroeder added that "a friendship cannot be based on a situation that when one side believes a position is wrong, he does not say so. Friendship does not mean that you say 'yes' and 'amen' to everything."

Neither Schroeder nor Stoiber mentioned Schroeder's meeting with French President Jacques Chirac on 7 September. Both leaders oppose a unilateral military strike by Washington against Iraq, but the French president left open his attitude to other military options. Chirac said he will wait to see how the debate progresses in the UN Security Council before taking a position. France is a permanent member of the Security Council; Germany is not.

A telephone poll immediately after last night's debate indicated more support for Schroeder on foreign-policy issues. The poll showed Schroeder ahead by 57 percent to 28 percent. Schroeder was also a winner on issues of competence, credibility, self-confidence, and fairness.

But Stoiber polled much better on the two most important domestic issues -- unemployment and the economy. On the question of tackling employment, Stoiber was ahead by 46 percent to 30 percent for Schroeder. Stoiber enjoys a good reputation at combating joblessness as premier of Bavaria, where unemployment is only 5.9 percent, compared with about 9.8 percent in the nation as a whole.

Throughout the debate, Stoiber persistently recalled that when Schroeder won election in 1998, he pledged to reduce unemployment from more than 4 million to 3.5 million and said he should be judged on his success in that area.

In last night's debate, Stoiber said Schroeder should be taken at his word: "We have a jobless figure of 4.1 million. You have said many times that a chancellor who is responsible for an unemployment figure of more than 4 million does not deserve to be re-elected."

Schroeder responded that he came close to reaching this goal in 2001, when unemployment sank to about 3.8 percent. But the international economic crisis and other factors beyond Berlin's control, he said, have worsened the situation. But he argued that, in any case, unemployment today is less than it was under the previous German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, at a time when both the American and German economies were booming. Kohl was a Christian Democrat chancellor.

Today, political analysts said the debate is unlikely to change the minds of many voters. Torsten Schneider-Haase of the Emnid polling institution told reporters: "Both men performed as expected. But most voters have already taken their personalities into account and are unlikely to change their minds because of how they appeared during the debate. It is the parties which matter in Germany -- not the personality of their leaders."

Reinhard Schlinkert, who is the chairman of the Dimap polling organization, said he believes the state of the German economy will be the most important factor for many voters. "This election will be decided by people who are afraid of losing their jobs because of the poor state of the economy," he said.

In a concluding statement at the end of last night's debate, Stoiber said the question for voters is whether Germany goes up or down. He said he is offering the German people a pact for growth and reform. He emphasized that German-American friendship is essential and that it will be improved under his leadership.

In his final statement, Schroeder said he wants to achieve a balance between the interests of capital and individuals. He called for a society that would enable women to have better chances for combining jobs and motherhood. On foreign policy, he said he will work together with NATO while retaining the right to decide what he called "existential questions."