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Merkel fights back with drop-dead argument
Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leader of the opposition Social Democrats squared off in one of the more riveting debates in parliament seen in ages on Wednesday, treating their respective camps to some fiery rhetoric that may galvanize support and help each side recover from steady erosions in opinion polls.
After SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel threw down the gauntlet and spent 40 highly entertaining minutes ripping into Merkel and her centre-right government, the chancellor rose to the challenge — spending the next 40 minutes with a spirited defence of the performance since taking power 10 months ago and attacking the centre-left opposition for such things as putting Germany’s long-term energy security at risk with “ideologically driven energy policies.”
Merkel, who may well face off against Gabriel in the next federal election due in 2013, whipped out a drop-dead argument that will probably make it difficult for anyone from either the SPD or from inside her own somewhat disenchanted conservative party to knock her out of office: unemployment has fallen by nearly two million to about three million since she took office in 2005.
Merkel’s popularity has nevertheless plunged since her re-election last year – due in part to incessant squabbling within the coalition and a perception her government has made little headway in moving the country forward. The centre-right government trails the centre-left opposition by about 10 points in opinion polls, an astonishing reversal of fortunes after they won the election last September by about 15 points.
“The most important thing is that the labour market is in robust shape,” Merkel, 56, said to cheers from her centre-right coalition of Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats sitting on the right half of the parliament floor who were clearly relishing their leader on the attack for a change. “Unemployment has fallen back to the level it was at before the financial crisis started two years ago. Five years ago it was nearly five million. This year we’ll possibly slip below the three million mark. That’s the mark of success for this Christian-Liberal coalition. We’re the growth engine of Europe.”
Gabriel, 52, had opened the debate in fine form, accusing Merkel of being a lapdog to lobbyists – her government gave hugely unpopular tax breaks to hotel owners and defied public opinion by agreeing to the demands of utilities to extend the use of nuclear energy. Gabriel also criticized what he called an increasingly unfair distribution of wealth in Germany under the centre-right government and the government’s habit of “giving tax breaks to the wrong people.”
He said the government has paid too much attention to saving private banks and not enough on education reform.
“The reason for your disastrous first year is that you don’t have a clue about which direction you’re taking the country in,” Gabriel said. “You’re primarily interested in catering to special interests. Never has a German government been so subservient to big business. You don’t have a clue about the damage your doing to Germany.”
Both political heavyweights scored points for good shots at each other but they also studiously ignored their own weaknesses. At the end of the day it was impossible to pick a winner – except perhaps the national TV audience and spectators in the Reichstag who got to see a really good battle for a change.