The three politicians battling it out for the top job in German politics have clashed in a TV debate during which the leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats failed to regain lost momentum and ceded the role of continuity candidate to his centre-left rival.
Polls published before the first of three televised debates suggested the race to lead Germany into the post-Merkel era was more wide open than ever, with Olaf Scholz’s SPD in a narrow lead over Armin Laschet’s CDU and Annalena Baerbock’s Green party following closely in third place.
A snap poll of viewers carried out after the programme suggested Sunday’s debate had done little to change voters’ minds, with 36% declaring Scholz the winner, ahead of Baerbock on 30% and Laschet on 25%.
In a combative but respectful two-hour debate that covered the war in Afghanistan, the future use of military drones, the climate crisis, measures to contain Covid-19 and the use of gender-neutral pronouns, Baerbock and Laschet went on the offensive to make up for lost ground.
Laschet, whose CDU has haemorrhaged about 15 percentage points in polls since the start of the year, described recent events in Afghanistan as a “disaster” not just for western allies but the German government – and by implication the chancellor he hopes to succeed.
The most animated and talkative of the three candidates in Sunday’s debate, he accused the resurgent SPD of blocking Germany’s army from being equipped with state-of-the-art hardware and warned of the Greens’ plans to burden businesses with environmental restrictions and higher taxes.
At times, Laschet’s energetic but wordy performance seemed to underline rather than banish the nervousness in CDU party ranks: the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia fluffed his concluding statement in which he tried to liken his own “steadfastness in adverse weather” to the “wind of change” experienced by the country as a whole.
Baerbock, who has struggled to recover from allegations of a doctored CV and plagiarised passages in her book, tried to renew her pitch as the plain-speaking candidate of change and reform.
“Years of wait and see under the grand coalition have not done this country any good,” she said of the power-sharing arrangement between CDU and SPD that has governed Germany for the last eight years. “We need a genuine new start.”
Baerbock criticised Merkel’s government for neglecting children and families during the pandemic, and accused her rivals of skirting around the issue of a ban on petrol and diesel engine cars, which she wants to enforce by 2030. The 40-year-old Green co-leader was the only of the three candidates who did not categorically rule out mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for certain professions, saying it “should not be ruled out for the future”.
Scholz, meanwhile, appeared more reserved as his rivals tore into each other, opting for slower, Merkel-esque answers with a historical sweep. Repeatedly, the finance minister and deputy chancellor laced his statements with reminders that “the chancellor and I” concurred on various issues.
Laschet tried to call Scholz’s bluff, accusing him of “acting like Angela Merkel and talking like Saskia Esken”, the SPD co-leader whom conservatives have discovered as the totemic representative of the party’s leftwing.
The CDU candidate tried to force his SPD rival to rule out a coalition with the Greens and the leftwing Die Linke, but failed to land a decisive blow. Scholz, who hails from the right of the SPD, evaded the challenge and declined to rule out an option he could use as leverage in upcoming coalition talks.