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By Michael Nienaber
BERLIN (Reuters) - The leading candidates of Germany's smaller parties locked horns over migration, security and foreign policy in a television debate on Monday.
It came less than three weeks before the federal election in which the third-placed party could turn out to be the kingmaker.
The clash followed a debate between centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz on Sunday in which hardly any differences emerged.
This stirred speculation that a re-run of the current grand coalition between the conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD is the most likely outcome of the Sept. 24 vote.
Merkel and Schulz both have stressed they want to avoid such a scenario. But polls suggest that the next government would have a stable majority only with another grand coalition or with a tricky three-way coalition between the conservatives, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).
In the debate of the smaller parties, Cem Ozdemir from the Greens attacked Die Linke (Left) candidate Sahra Wagenknecht and AfD politician Alice Weidel for their euroceptic rhetoric.
"This anti-European populism is simply wrong -- no matter if it comes from far-left or far-right," Ozdemir said, adding that Germany was benefitting immensely from the European Union and that it was easy to always blame Brussels for national problems in member states.
Weidel from the rightist anti-immigrant AfD blamed the European Central Bank's ultra-loose monetary policy for soaring rents and property prices in German cities and accused the ECB of violating European treaties with its bond-buying programme.
FDP candidate Christian Lindner tried to corner Ozdemir by accusing him of applying double standards in foreign policy and having an inconsistent approach towards Russia.
Lindner raised eyebrows last month when he suggested that Germany might have to accept Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine as a "permanent provisional arrangement".
Merkel has condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for anti-government separatists in eastern Ukraine, leading Europe in maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow.
Linder himself said Germany should not mix refugee and asylum policies with the need for a modern and well-directed immigration law to attract more highly educated workers from abroad to avert a shortage of skilled labour in Germany.
Turning to the threat of Islamist attacks, Lindner said there was no need for tougher security laws, adding that last year's Christmas market attack in Berlin by a failed asylum seeker could probably have been averted if authorities had only implemented existing laws more strictly.
AfD's Weidel called for tougher border controls to improve security and suggested there should be an upper limit of 10,000 refugees per year. The Bavarian CSU conservatives want an official cap of 200,000 refugees per year -- a proposal opposed by Merkel and the co-governing Social Democrats.
The SPD is trailing Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc by double digits in polls. The latest survey by Emnid showed on Sunday that the SPD gained one percentage point to 24 percent and Merkel's conservatives remained unchanged at 38 percent.
The leftist Die Linke came in at 9 percent, making it the third-strongest political force. The Greens, FDP and AfD stood at 8 percent each.
This means that six parties are expected to enter the Bundestag lower house of parliament, up from the current four. The fractured political landscape could make it hard to form another viable alliance than the current grand coalition.
(Reporting by Michael Nienaber Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)