With only three weeks to go until the general elections, Germany's highly anticipated and only TV debate between top chancellor candidates Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz starts at 8 p.m. local time (1800 UCT) on Sunday, shown on ARD, RTL, Sat.1 and ZDF. The debate gives the pair their main chance to land their punches live before the public ahead of the vote of September 24. Questions will be put to them by four presenters.
A poll by research agency Forsa for Stern magazine indicated about half of the electorate planned to watch the debate - about twenty percent of those polled said the debate could change the way they vote.
The 90-minute match-up will see Schulz of the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) try to convince Germany to leave behind their right-leaning Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chancellor, who has the distinct advantage of twelve years of experience in her post, during which Germany has sailed relatively unscathed through a variety of challenges.
Schulz has tried to capitalize on Merkel's perceived lack of personality and enthusiasm in his campaign, highlighting his rough-and-tumble youth and experience in European politics. Meanwhile he has accused the chancellor of being "aloof" and out of touch with voters through her famously unflappable demeanor.
"The last four years of the Kohl era were a period of stagnation and political agony. I want to spare Germany that again," Schulz said, referring to Helmut Kohl's fourth term in office, a record Merkel would tie should she emerge victorious in the election.
Merkel has highlighted German prosperity while seeking to reassure conservatives about policing and immigration. Merkel told the Rheinische Post on Saturday she wants to continue police checks at German borders which were introduced in September 2015 and are due to expire in November.
'Blackmail from the chancellery'
Merkel has also received criticism from the media for the strict format chosen for the debate on public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. The moderators do not have much room to deviate from pre-selected questions, and no members of the public will be in the TV studio, despite producers pressing for a bit more freedom.
"This is the same format that was used in 2009 and 2013, and it has proven itself to be a good one," she told news outlet Der Spiegel. She won both votes.
But former ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender called it "blackmail from the chancellery," implying that Merkel would not otherwise have taken part.
Merkel's numbers better than 2013
Despite these criticisms, Germany may have already made up its mind. The lastest survey from pollster Infratest dimap has the CDU far ahead of the SPD, with Merkel's party at around 37 percent and the SPD lagging behind at 23 percent.
Germans appear convinced of Merkel's victory ahead of the debate. A poll conducted by ARD found that 64 percent of respondents predicted that the chancellor would "win" the debate, while only 17 percent thought Schulz would.
These numbers were all the more striking in comparison to the numbers four years ago, when only 49 percent thought Merkel would come out ahead and 26 percent predicted a victory for the SPD's then-candidate, Peer Steinbrück.Elizabeth Schumacher