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Opinion

Opinion: The debate that wasn't

Following this election campaign's only face-off between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, one thing is clearer than ever – please, not another grand coalition government! That's DW editor Christoph Strack's wish.

Watch video 01:47

Highlights from Merkel/Schulz TV debate

That wasn't a contest. That was barely an exchange of blows. The so-called "TV duel" as it was coined across the five major German broadcasters, was probably the weakest since the format was launched in 2002. And it said as much about German politics as it did about German television.

Together, not against

Chancellor Angela Merkel lined up against (or, more precisely, alongside) her Social Democrat (SPD) rival Martin Schulz. It was a television debate featuring two politicians - whose respective parties have been governing Germany together as a coalition for the last four years - up against a quartet of journalists, as the public was forced to stay quiet and watch on.

Read more: Angela Merkel trounces election rival Martin Schulz in TV debate

In spite of Germany's booming economy, social strains still remain prevalent. However, watching Sunday's debate, you would be forgiven for thinking that wasn't case, as the issue was barely mentioned over the course of 97 minutes. The hardships facing many families, the challenges (and opportunities) posed by digitalization and technology, and the globalization of jobs and education - all issues that apparently didn't merit even a mention.

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Christoph Strack for DW in Berlin

Instead, it was as though we were taken back to 2015, as the debate largely centered on the on the intake and integration of migrants.

Of course, the politicians must also face the anger that has been bubbling to the surface over the past two years, in cities as well as in rural areas. But once again populism successfully undermined the diligence and professionalism of the political profession.

There were some noteworthy foreign policy points, however. On Turkey, both candidates announced a bold change of direction: no more negotiations on expanding the customs union and no more EU accession talks. The SPD wanted to keep the option of EU membership open, while the conservative Union parties have longed sought to prevent it altogether. And in the face of the autocrat in Ankara, who seemingly takes Germans hostages at will, Germany policy towards Turkey is now shifting significantly.

Second, on the current crisis in North Korea, Merkel was simply able to rely on her experience as a stateswoman and list her upcoming calls with Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.

Third, Merkel and Schulz both agreed that Qatar was not a suitable host country for the World Cup in 2022. It's rare to hear a politician, let alone two, express it so bluntly. Let's bear that it mind the next time we see state leaders travelling to the Gulf state with their entourage trade representatives.

Watch video 06:49

Melinda Crane and Thorsten Benner analyze the Merkel/Schulz TV debate

Petering out

If the 97 minutes of debating had anything to show, then it was that Germany no longer needs a grand coalition. Please, no more. The two parties have been occupying the Bundestag together for far too long.

Read more: What do 'right' and 'left' mean in the German election?

Besides, it was clear to see Sunday evening that they can clearly hardly stand each other anymore. They know every single crack in the other's wall.

Democracy needs a strong government, but it also needs strong opposition. A debate with a proper opposition simply peters out.

Since 2005, the television debate has remained a one-off spectacle in each federal election. It's better this way. The German system is a tried and tested parliamentary democracy, rather than a presidential democracy. (After all, the multitude of debates in the US helped Trump climb up in the polls ahead of last year's presidential vote.)

The German system focuses on a choice of parties, not a head of government. A parliamentary democracy needs strong policies and the voice of an opposition. On Sunday evening, we saw both these factors come to the fore, as tens of millions of engaged Germans voters watched on.

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