German election frontrunner stands firm as Merkel heir struggles

German Minister of Finance and SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz (L) is handed a beer as he stands next to General Secretary of the Social Democratic Party, Lars Klingbeil (R-back) and Co-leader of the German Social Democratoc Party Saskia Esken (R) at the tv studio press area after the 2nd "Triell" televised debate on Sept. 12, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Omer Messinger/Getty Images/TNS)
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Arne Delfs Bloomberg News (TNS)

Two weeks before Germany goes to the polls in a watershed election, center-left frontrunner Olaf Scholz fended off attacks over his track record as finance minister to consolidate his position as the most likely successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Scholz’s rival from Merkel’s conservative bloc, Armin Laschet, tried to use the second of three televised debates on Sunday night to get back in the race, dredging up controversies involving the Social Democrats’ candidate and highlighting a raid last week on the finance ministry.

A snap Infratest-dimap poll of 1,500 viewers for ARD suggested those hardball tactics had failed: 41% of respondents judged Scholz the winner with just 27% favoring Laschet. Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate, was seen as the best performer by 25%. A separate poll by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen had Scholz leading Baerbock by 32% to 26%, with Laschet on 20%.

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Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine Westphalia, had been a strong favorite to retain the chancellorship for the Christian Democrats after clinching the conservatives’ nomination in April. But his campaign has been undermined by high-profile gaffes during Germany’s summer floods and a persistent struggle to energize his party.

As Laschet dragged the CDU/CSU down to its lowest polling numbers on record, Scholz led the Social Democrats into pole position with a pitch to the moderates who had underpinned Merkel’s four successive election victories. Scholz’s SPD held a 6 percentage-point advantage over the conservative bloc in an Insa poll for Bild am Sonntag released Sunday.

The decision of German prosecutors to search the finance ministry on Thursday — part of a probe into efforts to combat money laundering — introduced an element of uncertainty into the final days of the campaign.

Laschet sought to take advantage, also bringing up the collapse of Wirecard AG on Scholz’s watch and the Cum-Ex scandal from his days as mayor of Hamburg.

“If my finance minister worked like you, we would have a serious problem,” Laschet told Scholz in the 90-minute debate aired by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF.

Scholz struck a statesmanlike tone as he parried Laschet’s attacks, arguing that he had enlarged the ministry’s special unit against money laundering.

Scholz has transformed his profile in Germany over the past 18 months as the public face of a vast aid program that helped to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic and he took a cautious line on the country’s finances. He said there is no room to cut taxes for companies and that the wealthiest Germans should pay more to help fund schools and the police.

Again, Laschet attacked his rival’s proposal.

“Raising taxes would be the wrong move in this phase of our economy,” the conservative said.

Another recurring theme was the question of which parties will join the next governing coalition. Laschet took Scholz to task for his refusal to rule out a pact with the Left party, which emerged from the former East German Communist party.

Laschet has come under pressure within his party because of his weak performance in the polls and at one point in the debate he appeared to lose his train of thought. “What was the question again?” he asked.

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