Merkel in campaign finale tells voters that leadership is key

Christian Democrat Armin Laschet shown here speaking in January 2021, is in a tight race for German chancellor against Green candidate Annalena Baerbock and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz. (Christian Marquardt/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)
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Patrick Donahue Bloomberg News (TNS)

BERLIN — In his first run for chancellor, Christian Democrat Armin Laschet risks losing the office that Angela Merkel held tight for conservatives for 16 years.

So a day before the nation’s most competitive election in almost two decades, Merkel joined him on the campaign trail one last time to stump for her would-be successor.

For voters who believe it makes little difference who the next chancellor is, Merkel sold Laschet as a leader who, like herself, will be a steady hand at the tiller of Europe’s largest economy.

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“I can say from experience that in the political life of a chancellor, there are points at which it’s anything but irrelevant who governs,” Merkel said Saturday in a packed square in Laschet’s home town of Aachen, a city on the western edge of the republic that was once the seat of power for Charlemagne.

With voters signaling a desire for change, Germany’s long-time leader is looking to salvage her own legacy after sitting on the sidelines for most of the campaign. Laschet revived the specter of a possible Social Democratic-led alliance under Olaf Scholz with the anti-capitalist Left party, saying voters “need to use these final hours” to ensure a leftward tilt doesn’t happen.

The election’s unexpected front-runner, Scholz made his official closing pitch on Friday to voters in Cologne, long a bastion for the SPD. On Saturday he appeared in Potsdam with local officials.

“We want a new beginning, a government led by the SPD,” Scholz told a crowd in central Cologne, the largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Laschet has governed as state premier since 2017.

He drew applause by pledging guaranteed pension levels and a hike in the minimum wage. The finance minister claimed credit for his part in shepherding Germany through the pandemic, helped by 400 billion euros ($468 billion) in spending. He also blasted Laschet for promising to cut taxes.

Laschet, 60, also campaigned with Merkel in Munich on Friday. The chancellor urged party supporters to reach out to wavering voters in the final 50 hours.

While Merkel hammers a steady-as-she-goes message, Germany’s shift in recent months to a “change” election from a continuity ballot comes as Europe’s largest economy stands at an inflection point.

Candidates have vowed to upgrade the country’s digital infrastructure, combat climate change — especially after deadly floods shocked the nation in July — and grapple with the challenges of an aging population.

The next chancellor will also have to contend with the transformation of Germany’s vaunted auto industry toward electric vehicles.

Scholz had a stunning surge over the summer from a distant third place behind Laschet and Green candidate Annalena Baerbock. Most observers wrote him off as recently as August.

The 63-year-old finance chief, whose understated delivery echoes that of Merkel, has gained traction by persuading voters he’s the right candidate to take over Germany’s economy.

Yet with polls showing the race tightening once more, Laschet’s betting on a comeback that would allow him to claim the mandate to head the next government.

The SPD’s lead over Laschet’s CDU/CSU alliance shrank to 1 percentage point in an Allensbach poll for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published on Friday. Essentially, the race is too close to call.

Baerbock, 40, whose initial promise dimmed over allegations of plagiarism and missteps in the campaign, also took her closing arguments to North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday, with a rally in state capital Dusseldorf.

At a campaign stop in Potsdam late Thursday, Baerbock spoke about the Green platform of tackling climate change, investing in health infrastructure, and ruling out tax cuts for the wealthy. She portrayed herself as the choice for genuine change after four terms under Merkel, including three with the Social Democrats as a partner in government.

A shuttered wind-turbine plant in Brandenburg state “is the result of 16 years of CDU — and 12 of SPD,” Baerbock said to cheers from the crowd of several hundred in the state capital.

The first projections of the election result, based on exit polls, will be released at 6 p.m. Sunday. But election night will only be the start of a lengthy process of forging a governing coalition, which is likely to require three parties. A close result means talks could drag on for weeks or months.

Scholz would aim to take up preliminary talks for an alliance with the Greens and the Free Democrats, a match-up made difficult by the FDP’s hard line against new taxes and borrowing. The SPD could alternatively bring on the anti-capitalist Left party, though with that party’s rejection of armed missions abroad, it’s unlikely.

Should Laschet pull off a win, he’d also most likely lobby the Greens and FDP — a constellation that Merkel attempted in 2017 only to see it collapse when FDP Chairman Christian Lindner walked away.

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