With a week to go until election day, Germany’s top parties will face off in a televised debate on Sunday with the race to succeed Angela Merkel in a dead heat.
The frontrunner by a hair, Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats turned in solid if low-key performances in the previous two debates and came out on top in post-broadcast viewer surveys.
Armin Laschet of Merkel’s conservatives attempted unsuccessfully in both of the previous confrontations to claw back a poll lead he enjoyed until July when a series of gaffes sent his approval rating into free fall.
Veteran Christian Democrat Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaker of the German parliament, admitted this week the party had lost momentum, creating a downward spiral for its image in the media.
“It’s like when your car is stuck in sand,” he told the weekly Die Zeit. “With every attempt to get out you dig yourself in deeper.”
The Social Democrats with around 25-percent support currently have a two-to-six point lead over Laschet’s CDU-CSU bloc, meaning the outcome is still considered wide open given likely shifts as the returns come in next Sunday.
With the number of undecided voters estimated at around 40 percent, Laschet will have one last chance with the debate to land a knock-out punch or lure Scholz, 63, into a rare misstep.
– Red line –
The two will be joined in the ring by Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, who after a strong start in the spring is now polling in the teens — a reversal widely attributed to her relative inexperience in politics.
However she has proven popular among young voters and her party may play a crucial kingmaker role in the post-election coalition haggling to form a government.
Laschet, 60, has tried out two primary lines of attack against Scholz, who has to the frustration of the conservatives presented himself as the rightful heir to Merkel with his moderate, cool-headed approach to governance.
The first is an accusation that Scholz would be ready to form a coalition with the far-left Die Linke party in order to cobble together a ruling three-way majority with the Greens.
While Scholz and Baerbock have said that Die Linke’s opposition to NATO would be a red line in any coalition talks, they have not explicitly ruled out working with the party, which is polling at around six percent.
– ‘Influence climate crisis’ –
Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, has also tried to grill Scholz over a probe into an anti-money laundering agency overseen by his ministry.
He has called the investigation the latest example of the minister falling short of his oversight duties in a series of recent financial scandals.
Scholz, who will face a parliamentary inquiry on the issue on Monday, has sharply rejected the accusation.
The popular Merkel, who is retiring from politics, has largely stayed out of the race but recently stepped up appearances with Laschet to offer his ailing campaign a lift.
Scholz, for his part, has promised stability and continuity after 16 years of Merkel-led governments, three out of four of them in partnership with the Social Democrats.
But he has said that he will shift attention to a growing cleft between rich and poor in Europe’s top economy by lifting the minimum wage and addressing a housing crunch with new construction. He’s hammered home a theme of “respect” for those left behind during years of robust growth.
Meanwhile Baerbock, 40, has accused both major parties of failing Germans on the Greens’ signature issue of climate protection.
She has said the next government “will be the last that can still actively influence the climate crisis” and pledged that any coalition her party would join would need to strongly boost investment in reducing emissions.