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Merkel/Steinmeier is no Obama/McCain

Four years of Germany's coalition government leads to a lackluster debate.

Franz Muentefering (left), leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), watches a televised debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU and her challenger, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), in Berlin, Sept. 13, 2009. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — Political debates, Germany discovered Sunday night, aren’t nearly as exciting when the opponents are on the same side.

The 12 million Germans who tuned in to see Chancellor Angela Merkel face off against the Social Democratic candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were no doubt hoping for a contentious exchange of views two weeks before their country’s national election. On display, instead, were two politicians largely in agreement with one another on all the major issues.

This perhaps came as no surprise, since Steinmeier has spent the past four years serving in Merkel’s cabinet as foreign minister and vice-chancellor, a product of an unwieldy “Grand Coalition” between the country’s two major parties. But the 90-minute debate seemed to distill the peculiar political condition that Germany has been in for the past four years: It might not be long until Germans develop a new compound word to describe it, but for now it can be called a “crisis of boredom.”

Under the Grand Coalition, the party that would normally serve as the opposition has been incorporated into the government, which means the government’s positions have become the de facto national consensus, without any significant public debate. The manufactured peace thrashed out in backroom deals between the major parties has obscured a festering discontent, and a feeling of enervation among the public. The churlish symptoms of this national neurosis were on display Sunday night during the debate and afterward.

They were evident in the exasperated smiles of the journalists who served as moderators of the debate. They were evident in the passive aggressive Monday morning headline in the country’s widest selling national newspaper: “Yes, we yawn!” And they were evident in some of the dubious fantasies aired during the televised post-debate analysis. Most of the panelists agreed that the two candidates seemed to lack passion. Claus Peymann, director of Berlin’s famed Berliner Ensemble theater, said he had barely managed to stay awake during the debate and that he was fed-up with the country’s colorless leaders. He even suggested looking to neighboring countries for examples of more virile leaders: “We could use someone like Sarkozy or Berlusconi,” he claimed.

Both candidates claimed to agree that the Grand Coalition has been bad for the country’s political culture, that it should remain an exception rather than the rule, but they also felt compelled to defend their common record from the past four years. The effect suggested that the two of them, and their respective parties, wouldn’t mind teaming up for another legislative period. The widespread agreements between them eventually prompted one of the moderators to say that they were acting like an old married couple, rather than political rivals.