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BERLIN – It’s still too early for Germany’s Social Democrats to crack the champagne.
But they want to put a lot on hold.
In the “Triell” on Sunday, the penultimate three-way debate between the top chancellor candidates, front runner Olaf Scholz, SPD flag bearer and acting Vice Chancellor, again emerged as the clear winner.
Two quick polls after the debate closed that the audience found Scholz to be by far the strongest candidate in a number of criteria, from sympathy to competence.
With the center-left SPD lead the pack by up to 6 percentage points in some polls and less than two weeks until election day, Scholz now has to lose the race to succeed Angela Merkel. That would put him in the driver’s seat to cobble together a coalition, with polls suggesting either an association with the Greens and business-friendly Free Democrats or a left-wing alliance with the Greens and the left.
ELECTION SURVEY OF THE GERMAN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT
More survey data from across Europe can be found at POLITICS Poll of polls.
Armin Laschet, the candidate of the ruling Christian Democrats, had only one task on Sunday night: to undermine the confidence of the voters in Scholz. Laschet did his best and put in perhaps his strongest performance in the past few months, but as he has done throughout the season, he ended up falling short.
Laschet entered the campaign as a front runner and acted like one, portraying himself as a centrist Mr. Nice Guy above the skirmish who didn’t have to tarnish himself by attacking his opponents. But a series of missteps, followed by a steep drop in poll numbers, have forced him to regroup and attack in recent weeks.
However, on Sunday it became clear again that aggression is not Lachet’s forte. His criticism of Scholz worked well right down to his hand movements.
Laschet’s main line of attack was to focus on Scholz’s political proximity to two major financial scandals as incumbent finance minister and also previously as Hamburg mayor – the massive fraud that led to the collapse of the Wirecard payment company, and the so-called CumEx Affair, an extensive criminal case involving large-scale tax evasion.
Laschet managed to get under the skin with his unvarnished criticism of the SPD man’s handling, but failed because of the knock-out. Laschet put Scholz on the defensive, but the latter succeeded with a calm counterattack to at least partially refute the allegations. Scholz even managed to clear away a raid on his ministry last week in which officials failed to investigate reports of potential money laundering.
In a rare touch of aggression (albeit in his typical monotonous expression), Scholz described Laschet’s attacks as “insincere” and “dishonest”. In the end, the audience was left with an incomprehensible “he said, she said”. So Scholz, who played the reliable center forward, was able to defend his position.
“Moderation is the right way,” Scholz said at one point in the direction of Laschet, a sugar-sweet comment that could serve as the theme of his campaign.
Laschet also took action against Scholz because he had not ruled out a coalition with the Left Party, the ideological successor to the Communist Party of the GDR, a scenario that the conservatives described as “extremely dangerous”.
This line was known to everyone who followed the campaign (or German politics in the 1990s). Whether such arguments can help Laschet win the undecided voters he needs is questionable.
The best performance of the evening, at least from the point of view of many analysts, came from Green candidate Annalena Baerbock.
On a podium between the other two candidates, who were both old enough to be their father, Baerbock presented himself as a voice of the future that did not focus on litigating the past but on saving the planet.
However, given the sharp decline in the Greens in recent weeks, Baerbock’s performance is unlikely to have a major impact on the election result.
Her fall from grace meant that Sunday’s debate was practically a duel between Scholz and Laschet, largely ignoring each Baerbock in order to focus on the other.
According to the polls following the debate, the stalemate did not change many voters over the three candidates. 43 percent of the ARD respondents supported Scholz, 19 percent Laschet and 13 percent Baerbock in the run-up to the debate. After that, Scholz’s rating remained unchanged. Laschet and Baerbock both improved by several points, but lagged significantly behind the finance minister.
This may be because the discussion focused on tried and tested soil, from pandemic policy to the candidates’ fight against climate change.
The topic of foreign policy was hardly missing from the discussion, although Germany’s next head of state will spend a large part of his time dealing with an increasingly unpredictable world. Europe was only mentioned in passing.
Next Sunday, the candidates will face each other one last time. If this debate is something like that on Sunday, the SPD might want to order more bubbly.