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Merkel party seeks to turn race around with TV debate

 

AFP

 

BERLIN — With a week to go until election day, Germany's top parties face off in a televised debate on Sunday, with the race to succeed Angela Merkel in a dead heat.
 
The frontrunner by a hair, Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, turned in solid if low-wattage performances in the first two of a trio of three-way debates and came out on top in viewer surveys.
 
Armin Laschet of Merkel's conservatives attempted unsuccessfully in both of the previous confrontations to claw back a poll lead he enjoyed until July, when a series of gaffes sent his approval ratings into free fall.
 
He risks leading his bloc to its worst post-war score.
 
Veteran Christian Democrat Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaker of the parliament, admitted the conservatives had lost momentum, creating a downward spiral for their image in the media.
 
“It’s like when your car is stuck in sand,” he told the weekly Die Zeit. “With every attempt to get out you dig yourself in deeper.”
 
The Social Democrats with around 25 per cent support currently have a two-to-six point lead over Laschet’s “Union”, meaning the outcome is still considered wide open given likely shifts as the returns come in next Sunday.
 
The race has also narrowed over the last week, which Laschet, 60, said boded well for him.
 
“I’m convinced we’ll be first past the post,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “We sense that something’s in motion. Things are looking up for the Union.”
 
With the number of undecided voters estimated at around 40 per cent, Laschet will have a last chance with the debate to land a knock-out punch or lure Scholz, 63, into a rare misstep.
 
Red line 
 
The two will be joined in the ring by Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, 40, who after a strong start in the spring is now polling between 15 and 17 per cent — a reversal widely attributed to her relative inexperience.
 
However, she has proven popular among young voters and her party may play a kingmaker role in the post-election coalition haggling to form a government.
 
Scholz has, to the frustration of the conservatives, presented himself as the rightful heir to Merkel with his moderate, cool-headed approach to governance.
 
Laschet’s primary line of attack against him is that Scholz would be ready to form a coalition with the far-left Die Linke party in order to cobble together a ruling three-way majority with the Greens.
 
While Scholz and Baerbock have said that Die Linke’s opposition to NATO would be a red line in any coalition talks, they have not explicitly ruled out working with the party, which is polling at around 6 per cent.
 
‘Influence climate crisis’ 
 
Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, also tried at last Sunday’s debate to grill Scholz over a probe into an anti-money laundering agency overseen by his ministry.
 
He has called the investigation the latest example of the minister falling short of his oversight duties in a series of recent financial scandals.
 
Scholz, who will face a parliamentary inquiry on the issue on Monday, has sharply rejected the accusation.
 
The popular Merkel, who is retiring from politics, has largely stayed out of the race but recently stepped up appearances with Laschet to offer his ailing campaign a lift.
 
Scholz, for his part, has promised stability and continuity after four terms of Merkel-led governments, three of them in partnership with the Social Democrats.
 
But he has said that he will shift attention to a growing cleft between rich and poor in Europe’s top economy by lifting the minimum wage, pursuing more progressive tax rates and addressing a housing crunch with new construction.
 
Meanwhile Baerbock has accused both major parties of failing Germans on the Greens’ signature issue of climate protection.
 
She told a party congress on Sunday that the election “will decide the last government that can still actively influence the climate crisis”.
 

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