29 August 2021

Germany’s three would-be chancellors cross swords in TV debate

29 August 2021

The three candidates to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s election sought to gain an advantage in the closely fought race in a televised debate, with recent polls suggesting that many voters are unimpressed with the choice they face.

The contenders in the September 26 parliamentary election are Armin Laschet for Mrs Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc, Olaf Scholz for the centre-left Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock for the environmentalist Greens.

No candidate appeared to score decisive points or commit a major error in the debate on RTL and n-tv private television, the first of three.

It saw at times combative performances from Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock, the two candidates who face the most pressure, but remained polite and often pointed to common ground rather than major differences.

All three declined to answer an opening question on why one of the others was not up to being chancellor, while none favoured another coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Laschet is the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mr Scholz is the vice chancellor and finance minister in Mrs Merkel’s outgoing coalition government.

Annalena Baerbock (Markus Schreiber/AP) (AP)

Ms Baerbock, who lacks government experience, is making the Greens’ first run for the chancellery.

Recent polls show no party receiving more than a quarter of the vote, a particularly disappointing situation for the Union after Mrs Merkel’s 16 years in government.

The Union and Social Democrats are neck-and-neck in most surveys, closely followed by the Greens.

The campaign so far has seen missteps by both Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock, helping give some momentum to Mr Scholz.

The experienced Scholz has seen his personal ratings rise and his party’s long-moribund support increase.

“We have a good plan, and I have a good plan, for the future … and of course I’ve been able to prepare myself very well with all the positions I held in the past,” he said.

In his closing statement to viewers, Mr Laschet said: “I have often faced headwinds, including now.

Germany’s Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor in the upcoming national elections Olaf Scholz (Markus Schreiber/AP) (AP)

“But aren’t we all feeling the wind of change blowing in our face?

“In such moments, we need steadfastness, reliability … and that is my offer, the Union’s offer: stability and reliability in difficult times.”

Ms Baerbock assailed her rivals for insufficient ambition on fighting climate change.

“This position that the climate crisis is escalating but we won’t change the policy has led to us having a huge problem now,” she said.

“So no more half measures on climate protection.”

Mr Laschet said the Greens’ approach added up to “putting chains on industry’s feet and saying, ‘Run faster’”.

The debate touched on recent events in Afghanistan, where the German government, like others, scrambled to evacuate its nationals and endangered Afghans from Kabul following the capital’s fall to the Taliban after previously having withdrawn its military.

Armin Laschet (Markus Schreiber/AP) (AP)

Mr Laschet described what happened as “a disaster for the West, also a disaster for the German government” and used it to renew a call for a “national security council” to improve decision-making in Germany

Ms Baerbock accused the government of “ducking away” from decisions on getting endangered Afghans out.

Mr Scholz pointed to government efforts to enable those who could not be evacuated in recent days to leave.

Mr Laschet challenged Mr Scholz to rule out a coalition with the hard-left opposition Left Party, a possibility the Union has played up as its own ratings weaken.

Mr Scholz declined to do so explicitly, but said the Left Party’s refusal to support the military evacuation mission from Kabul “greatly saddened” him and insisted that any government he leads must have “a clear commitment to Nato”.

Germany has had televised candidates between candidates for chancellor since 2002.

Angela Merkel is not seeking another term (Jonathan Buckmaster/Daily Express/PA) (PA Wire)

In recent campaigns, there was only one debate between Mrs Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger of the day.

This time, another two follow on September 12 and September 19.

Mrs Merkel announced in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth four-year term.

She has largely stayed out of this campaign, saying at a rare rally appearance a week ago that “predecessors who are ending their political work should hold back”.

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