An American duel for German chancellor


Maurizio Gambarini | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel attends a press conference in the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on July 05, 2017.

If pollsters are to be believed, half of all Germans eligible to vote will be glued to their television sets on Sunday evening for the only debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger, Martin Schulz. In a campaign that otherwise feels soporific to outsiders, and even to Germans, this “showdown” will pass as a climax. Can Schulz, trailing badly in the polls, land a punch? Will Merkel, comfortably ahead, seem robotic or defensive in parrying his blows?

These questions are fun, and we will soon have answers. But they distract from a bigger point: Germany should not have such debates at all, for they are, like so many things in Germany, an American import that does not fit into Germany’s culture of democracy, which is very different from America’s.

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The debate format that is indigenous to German democracy is the so-called “elephant round”. In such a gathering the leaders (“elephants”) of all the political parties in the Bundestag converge around a table for a discussion that, in practice, is more chaotic, less scripted and vastly more revealing and informative than any US-style debate. During the 1970s and 80s, these rounds were major political spectacles on television. They had no time limits; one, in 1976, went on for four hours! Smoke billowed around the dueling peacocks, especially when Helmut Schmidt, a chain smoker, was involved. Small parties were heard just as much as large parties, as all sides auditioned for the voters’ favors based on their manifestos and ideas and armed only with their wit.

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