Merkel wins Germany's only televised debate: Polls

For Schulz the debate with Merkel may be the last chance to build momentum for the September 24 vote

The main surprise of the 90-minute debate - the only one of the election, three weeks before polling day - was a hardening of Mrs Merkel's position on Turkey, with a vow to seek an end to its European Union accession talks after Mr Schulz said that he would end the membership process.

"Whoever is the next chancellor has the task to tell Turkey in order to protect the Federal Republic of Germany: all red lines have now been crossed, and therefore this country can no longer become a member of the EU", Schulz said.

"A point has been reached where we need to end the economic relationship, the financial relationship, the customs union and the accession talks", Schulz said during the 90-minute debate.

Merkel's strong words against Turkey came after her rival, Schulz, had minutes earlier called for an end to the European Union membership talks for Ankara.

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The comments are likely to worsen already strained ties between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies after Merkel said on Friday Berlin should react decisively to Turkey's detention of two more German citizens on political charges.

The plunge in bilateral relations began after Germany sharply criticised Ankara over the crackdown that followed last year's failed coup attempt there.

But with nearly half the voters still undecided three weeks before the elections, the straight-talking Schulz had been pinning his hopes on the prime-time TV showdown, hoping to sway millions to his cause and halt a devastating popularity slide.

Telephone polls following Sunday's debate put Merkel ahead of Schulz, though in Germany the chancellor is elected by parliament.

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An ZDF survey was closer but still had Merkel ahead with 32 percent, against 29 percent who thought Schulz performed better.

However, Mrs Merkel returned to the issue later on in the debate, making a u-turn by promising to end the negotiations. Allowing hundreds of thousands of people into the country was the "absolutely correct" thing to do at the time, the chancellor said.

"I believe that we will manage this together", she told viewers, as she asked them for their support at the ballot boxes on Sept 24.

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