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BERLIN – It is still too early for the German Social Democrats to open the champagne.
But they want to put it on ice.
In Sunday’s “Triell”, the penultimate three-way debate between the main candidates for German Chancellor, the favorite Olaf Scholz, the SPD standard-bearer and current vice-chancellor, again established himself as the great winner.
A pair of snap polls following the debate concluded that viewers found Scholz to be the strongest contender in the race – with a healthy margin – on a range of criteria, from sympathy to competence.
With the center-left SPD leading the pack with up to 6 percentage points in some polls and less than two weeks before election day, the race to succeed Angela Merkel is now up for grabs for Scholz. That would put him in the driver’s seat to concoct a coalition, with polls indicating either a rapprochement with the pro-business Greens and Free Democrats, or a left alliance with the Greens and the left.
ELECTORAL SURVEY AT THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT OF GERMANY
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Armin Laschet, the candidate for the ruling Christian Democrats, had only one task on Sunday night: to undermine voters’ confidence in Scholz. Laschet did his best and put in perhaps his best performance over the past few months, but as has happened throughout the campaign, he ultimately failed.
Laschet entered the campaign as and acted as a favorite, posing as a centrist Mr. Nice Guy above the fray who didn’t need to get dirty attacking his opponents. But a series of missteps followed by a dizzying drop in the polls has forced him to regroup in recent weeks and go on the attack.
On Sunday it was again evident, however, that aggression is not Lachet’s strong suit. His criticisms of Scholz seemed well established, even in his hand gestures.
Laschet’s main line of attack was to focus on Scholz’s political proximity to two major financial scandals as current finance minister and previously mayor of Hamburg – the massive fraud that led to the collapse of the company payment card and the so-called CumEx case. , a large criminal case involving large-scale tax evasion.
Although Laschet clearly managed to get under Scholz’s skin with his blunt criticism of the SPD man’s handling of affairs, he failed to land a punch. Laschet put Scholz on the defensive, but the latter managed to blunt the accusations, at least in part, with a calm counterattack. Scholz even managed to explain a raid on his ministry last week involving accusations that officials failed to pursue reports of potential money laundering.
In a rare flash of aggression (albeit expressed in its characteristic monotony), Scholz called Laschet’s attacks “dishonest” and “dishonest.” In the end, viewers were left with an indecipherable “he said, she said”. This meant that Scholz, who played the reliable centrist, was able to defend his position.
“Moderation is the right path,” Scholz said at one point in the direction of Laschet, a saccharine comment that could serve as a theme for his campaign.
Laschet also sued Scholz for failing to rule out a coalition with the Left Party, the ideological successor to the Communist Party of East Germany, a scenario which the conservatives called “extremely dangerous”.
It was a line familiar to anyone following the campaign (or German politics in the 1990s, for that matter). Whether such arguments can help Laschet win over the undecided voters he needs, a poll pool estimated at around 25 percent of the electorate, is questionable.
The best performance of the evening, at least in the opinion of many analysts, came from Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock.
Standing on a podium between the other two candidates, both old enough to be his father, Baerbock presented himself as a voice of the future, focused not on the litigation of the past but on saving the planet.
Yet given the Greens’ sharp decline in recent weeks, Baerbock’s performance is unlikely to have much of an influence on the election outcome.
His fall from favor meant Sunday’s debate was actually a duel between Scholz and Laschet and each largely ignored Baerbock to focus on the other.
According to post-debate polls, the stalemate did not change the minds of many voters about the three candidates. Before the debate, 43% of those polled by the public broadcaster ARD expressed support for Scholz, 19% for Laschet and 13% for Baerbock. Scholz’s rating remained unchanged thereafter. Laschet and Baerbock both improved by several points but fell far behind the finance minister.
Perhaps that’s because the discussion has focused on well-traveled ground, from pandemic politics to how the candidates would tackle climate change.
The topic of foreign policy was virtually absent from the discussion, despite the fact that Germany’s next leader will spend much of his time dealing with an increasingly unpredictable world. Europe was only mentioned in passing.
The candidates must face each other one last time next Sunday. If this debate looks like Sunday’s, the SPD may want to order more bubbles.