Candidates representing the two parties that have governed Germany in a “grand coalition” for 12 out of the past 16 years tore into each other’s record on Sunday night, in a televised election debate that saw centre-left frontrunner Olaf Scholz declared winner despite swipes from his conservative rival.
In the second of three televised debates, hosted by Germany’s two public broadcasters, conservative candidate Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) tried to turn his fortunes around by attacking finance minister Scholz of the Social Democratic party (SPD) over his track-record on tackling money laundering and corruption.
Ahead of national elections in two weeks’ time, polls predict Laschet’s CDU crashing to historic lows as the tenure of its four-term chancellor, Angela Merkel, comes to an end.
“If my finance minister were to work like you, then we would have a serious problem,” said Laschet, who is the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia.
Germany’s federal finance and justice ministry were raided last week in order to obtain information relevant to an investigation into the government’s anti money-laundering agency, though not to probe Scholz’s ministry itself.
Scholz accused his CDU rival of being “dishonest” for suggesting he himself stood accused of wrongdoing, and boasted of his own effort to modernise the ministry he has led for three years.
Similar attempts to damage Scholz over his links to the Wirecard accounting scandal and the Cum-Ex tax fraud scheme failed to achieve the desired effect.
Laschet’s line of attack was softened by the fact that financial scandals tend to be too complicated to be summarised in TV soundbites, and that questions about failed oversight duties could equally be asked about his own party.
A snap poll published after the debate showed Scholz repeat the clear victory he had achieved in the first debate, with 41% of viewers describing the SPD candidate as the most convincing, compared with 27% who said the same of Laschet and 25% who opted for Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock.
Baerbock cut a more relaxed and lively figure than in the first debate but found herself pushed into a moderator role as the two men got stuck in what she mocked as Vergangenheitsbewältigungen, raking over the past of their coalition wrangles.
The Green candidate criticised the largest two parties for their unambitious carbon emissions targets, arguing that Germany needed to switch off its coal power plants significantly earlier than 2038, as planned.
She declined to rule out holding coalition talks between the SPD, the Greens and far-left outfit Die Linke. She said Die Linke was “of course a democratic party” that did not represent as extreme positions as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland on the other end of the political spectrum.
Scholz too declined to rule out coalition talks with Die Linke but accentuated his difference to the party founded in 2007 partly by disaffected Social Democrats. “An acknowledgement of transatlantic relations, Nato and the European Union are necessary for a good government,” he said.
Laschet, in turn, did not rule out the possibility that his party could continue to serve in a coalition with the SPD, but with senior and junior roles reversed in the case of a Scholz victory.