Schroeder holds TV debate with challenger Merkel

Chancellor Gerhard Schrцder tried to ward off the prospect of imminent defeat in Germany's general election by attacking his conservative rival Angela Merkel during a marathon television debate watched by an estimated 20 million voters.

The 90-minute duel, screened simultaneously on four channels, was seen as Mr Schrцder's last opportunity to give his ailing Social Democrats at least a chance of swinging the vote in their favor in elections in two weeks.

Calling on voters to back his polices of "socially just" economic reforms, a confident Mr Schrцder attacked Ms Merkel's plans to raise the German equivalent of VAT and introduce a 25 per cent flat rate income tax.

"This is trying to treat people like guinea pigs," Mr Schrцder said. "These ideas cannot be taken seriously," he added, insisting that during his tenure Germany had become a "world champion" exporting nation, reports Independent.

According to Fuardian, some 20 million German households tuned into last night's debate, making it the country's biggest TV event since Germany lost to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup final. Before the clash Mr Schrцder - an accomplished media performer - was widely expected to do better than his conservative rival.

In the event, though, Mrs Merkel appeared both quicker and more confident. She even made a joke. Asked whether it was thanks to Mr Schrцder's liberal red-green government that it was now possible for a woman to become German chancellor, she replied: "No." Referring to the fact she was born in West Germany but grew up in the communist east, she added: "I'm a product of German reunification and I'm a product of my parents. I'm proud of both."

Last night Mr Schrцder could take some consolation from opinion polls after the debate which suggested he had won a narrow victory.

But opinion polls over the weekend gave Mrs Merkel's CDU party a decisive lead with 43% of the vote, according to Der Spiegel magazine. Mr Schrцder's Social Democratic party (SPD) has gone up one per cent to 32%, with its coalition partner the Greens on 7%.

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