Merkel loses first TV debate with rival

Steinmeier emerges victorious after taking fight to Chancellor over Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

Germany's conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel was beaten by her Social Democrat opponent Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a key television duel broadcast nationwide last night, two weeks ahead of the general election.

Viewer polls conducted by Germany's ZDF television channel showed that Mr Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister who is running against Ms Merkel in the election on 27 September, was more than 10 per cent ahead of his rival after the 90-minute debate.

Mr Steinmeier, who has been lagging well over 20 points behind Ms Merkel in the opinion polls, seized the initiative in the debate by calling for German troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2013

"We went to Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks, including those against ourselves," Mr Steinmeier said. "But we don't want to stay forever. The aim over the course of the next parliamentary period is to lay the foundations for withdrawal," he said.

Although Mr Steinmeier named the date of 2013 for the withdrawal of more than 4,000 German troops deployed in northern Afghanistan, he suggested during the TV debate that the date would be the earliest point at which a decision about a pullout could be made.

Mr Steinmeier's calls for a pullout came just over a week after a German army colonel in Afghanistan ordered a lethal air strike on two petrol tankers captured by the Taliban which resulted in the deaths of at least 30 civilians.

Yesterday, the colonel, Georg Klein, defended his decision to order the air strike, despite allegations by senior Nato officers that he had been in breach of proper military procedures. German public opinion is strongly opposed to the country's military presence in Afghanistan.

Mrs Merkel refused to commit herself to a withdrawal date but admitted that her government was engaged in a "hand-over strategy" with Afghanistan which was based on the principle of providing the country with its own self-sufficient security force.

The German Chancellor has pledged to form a new coalition with the pro-market liberal Free Democrats, if she wins the election.

Mr Steinmeier's announcement was an attempt to seize the initiative in a lacklustre election campaign which has seen leaders of the two parties in Germany's grand coalition government competing for the post of Chancellor.

One of the four television journalists who anchored last night's debate described Mrs Merkel and Mr Steinmeier as behaving on screen like "an old married couple".