Conservative candidate Armin Laschet, from the ruling CDU/CSU coalition, sought to make up for lost ground in opinion polls by attacking his socialist rival Olaf Scholz during Germany’s second televised election debate.
With Germany set to vote in a general election on 26 September, the second TV debate on Sunday (12 September) already looked like a last chance opportunity for Laschet to make up for lost ground in the polls.
The debate, which this time was carried out by television channels ARD and ZDF, was much more controversial than the first TV debate two weeks ago.
Laschet attacked Scholz on two fronts: his alleged involvement in large-scale financial scandals during his time as finance minister and his refusal to strictly rule out a coalition with the far-left party Die Linke should he win the elections.
“The citizens don’t want The Left party in the government,” Laschet said in his initial salvo, saying Scholz refused to rule out a coalition with the far-left party Die Linke.
Laschet then pointed to Scholz’s alleged wrongdoings after police raided Scholz’s finance ministry on 9 September over suspicions that officials at the ministry’s sub-Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) hindered prosecution efforts in the Wirecard and Cum-Ex fraud scandals.
Scholz’s ministry were at least partially involved in the Wirecard financial scandal, said Laschet. And in the Cum-Ex fraud scandal, Hamburg’s finance ministry had failed to request back about €50 million from a bank, which Scholz is alleged to have been involved in.
Scholz retorted that the investigations were “carried out to aid this discovery and that it has nothing to do with the ministries where it took place”. The ministries had “done everything that is necessary on this issue”, he proclaimed.
At one point, Scholz did lose some of his cool, calling the “false accusations” by Laschet “dishonest”.
But is unlikely that Laschet’s attacks found much success with viewers. A snap poll for ARD, made soon after the 90-minute debate, showed that 41% of those asked thought Scholz was the most convincing speaker, compared to 27% for Laschet and 25% for Baerbock.
Domestic policy prevails
The Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock, for her part, was hesitant to follow Laschet’s attacks and instead pointed out the abundance of tax evasion and money laundering in Germany, for which she implicitly blamed Scholz’s finance ministry.
On substance however, domestic policy again prevailed. While Laschet and Scholz did their best to project stability, the Greens’ Baerbock called for a departure from 16 years of “business as usual”.
The Greens candidate made it clear that Germany’s climate targets would be missed at the current pace, while Laschet and Scholz both accused each other of blocking important decisions on energy and climate protection.
Baerbock, who sought to position herself as the candidate running of real change, was the only one to espouse a ban on combustion engine vehicles by 2030 to speed up the shift towards electric mobility.
Baerbock proved most popular in the 18-34 age group, with more than 50% of the young declaring her the winner of the debate. The 18-34 age group makes up less than 20% of voters.
Scholz, who leads in the polls, did his best to display a moderate Merkel-esque style. “The moderate way is the right way,” he said, when asked about the impacts of Germany’s carbon price that came into effect in January 2021 and is set to increase step-by-step.
Europe and foreign policy missing
One topic was almost entirely absent from the debate: Europe and foreign policy. For a country that is still grappling with the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, the topic was strangely absent from the agenda, observers noted, with comments made off-camera, before the start of the show.
In an interview with Welt am Sonntag ahead of the debate, SPD candidate Olaf Scholz called for accelerated EU decision-making on financial and foreign policy matters, with decisions to be made by qualified majority “instead of blocking each other with unanimous consent”.
CDU’s Armin Laschet on the other hand, in a Deutschlandfunk interview on the same day, lobbied for more German internal commitment on migration, asking the federal states to accept Afghan refugees.
He also called for a stronger European coordination of security and defence efforts, as well as “more Europe” when it comes to cooperation between intelligence services, with the creation of a common database for terror suspects.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]