German chancellor candidates face off in 1st election debate

BERLIN (AP) — The three candidates to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s election sought to gain an advantage in the closely fought race in a televised debate Sunday, with recent polls suggesting that many voters are unimpressed with the choice they face.

The contenders in the Sept. 26 parliamentary election are Armin Laschet for Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, Olaf Scholz for the center-left Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock for the environmentalist Greens.

No candidate appeared to score decisive points or commit a major error in the debate on RTL and n-tv private television, the first of three.

It saw at times combative performances from Laschet and Baerbock, the two candidates who face the most pressure, but remained polite and often pointed to common ground rather than major differences. All three declined to answer an opening question on why one of the others wasn’t up to being chancellor, while none favored another coronavirus lockdown.

Laschet is the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Scholz is the vice chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s outgoing coalition government. Baerbock, who lacks government experience, is making the Greens’ first run for the chancellery.

Recent polls show no party receiving more than a quarter of the vote, a particularly disappointing situation for the Union after Merkel’s 16 years in government. The Union and Social Democrats are neck-and-neck in most surveys, closely followed by the Greens.

The campaign so far has seen missteps by both Laschet and Baerbock, helping give some momentum to Scholz.

The experienced Scholz has seen his personal ratings rise and his party’s long-moribund support increase. “We have a good plan, and I have a good plan, for the future … and of course I’ve been able to prepare myself very well with all the positions I held in the past,” he said.

In his closing statement to viewers, Laschet said: “I have often faced headwinds, including now. But aren’t we all feeling the wind of change blowing in our face? In such moments, we need steadfastness, reliability … and that is my offer, the Union’s offer: stability and reliability in difficult times.”

Baerbock assailed her rivals for insufficient ambition on fighting climate change. “This position that the climate crisis is escalating but we won’t change the policy has led to us having a huge problem now,” she said. “So no more half measures on climate protection.”

Laschet said the Greens’ approach added up to “putting chains on industry’s feet and saying, ‘Run faster.’”

The debate touched on recent events in Afghanistan, where the German government — like others — scrambled to evacuate its nationals and endangered Afghans from Kabul following the capital’s fall to the Taliban after previously having withdrawn its military.

Laschet described what happened as “a disaster for the West, also a disaster for the German government” and used it to renew a call for a “national security council” to improve decision-making in Germany. Baerbock accused the government of “ducking away” from decisions on getting endangered Afghans out. Scholz pointed to government efforts to enable those who couldn’t be evacuated in recent days to leave.

Laschet challenged Scholz to rule out a coalition with the hard-left opposition Left Party, a possibility the Union has played up as its own ratings weaken.

Scholz declined to do so explicitly, but said the Left Party’s refusal to support the military evacuation mission from Kabul “greatly saddened” him and insisted that any government he leads must have “a clear commitment to NATO.”

Germany has had televised candidates between candidates for chancellor since 2002. In recent campaigns, there was only one debate between Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger of the day. This time, another two follow on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19.

Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth four-year term. She has largely stayed out of this campaign, saying at a rare rally appearance a week ago that “predecessors who are ending their political work should hold back.”