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BERLIN — It’s still too early for Germany’s Social Democrats to crack open the Champagne.
But they want to put some on ice.
In Sunday’s “Triell,” the penultimate three-way debate between the leading candidates for German chancellor, frontrunner Olaf Scholz, the SPD standard-bearer and current vice chancellor, emerged once again as the clear victor.
A pair of blitz polls following the debate concluded that viewers found Scholz to be the strongest candidate in the race — by a healthy margin — across a range of criteria, from likeability to competence.
With the center-left SPD leading the pack by as much as 6 percentage points in some polls and less than two weeks until election day, the race to succeed Angela Merkel is now Scholz’s to lose. That would put him in the driver’s seat to cobble together a coalition, with polls pointing to either a tie-up with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats or a left-wing alliance with the Greens and Left.
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Armin Laschet, the candidate for the ruling Christian Democrats, had one job on Sunday night: to undermine voters’ trust in Scholz. Laschet gave it his best shot and put in perhaps his strongest performance in recent months, but as has happened throughout the campaign, he ultimately came up short.
Laschet entered the campaign as the frontrunner and acted like one, portraying himself as a centrist Mr. Nice Guy above the fray who didn’t need to sully himself by attacking his opponents. But a string of missteps followed by a precipitous drop in the polls forced him to regroup in recent weeks and go on the attack.
On Sunday, it was again apparent, however, that aggression isn’t Lachet’s strong suit. His criticisms of Scholz appeared well-rehearsed, right down to his hand gestures.
Laschet’s main line of attack was to focus on Scholz’s political proximity to two major financial scandals as the current finance minister and also previously as mayor of Hamburg — the massive fraud that led to the collapse of payments firm Wirecard, and the so-called CumEx affair, a vast criminal case involving tax evasion on a grand scale.
Though Laschet clearly managed to get under Scholz’s skin with his unvarnished criticism of the SPD man’s handling of the affairs, he failed to land a knock-out punch. Laschet put Scholz on the defensive, but the latter succeeded in blunting the accusations, at least in part, with a calm counter attack. Scholz even managed to explain away a raid on his ministry last week involving accusations that officials had failed to pursue reports of potential money laundering.
In a rare flash of aggression (albeit expressed in his trademark monotone), Scholz called Laschet’s attacks “disingenuous” and “dishonest.” In the end, viewers were left with an indecipherable “he said, she said.” That meant Scholz, who played the reliable centrist, was able to defend his position.
“Moderation is the right path,” Scholz declared at one point in Laschet’s direction, a saccharine comment that could serve as the theme of his campaign.
Laschet also went after Scholz for not ruling out a coalition with the Left party, the ideological successor to East Germany’s communist party, a scenario the conservative called “extremely dangerous.”
It was a familiar line 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 pool pollsters put at about 25 percent of the electorate, is questionable.
The best performance of the evening, at least in the view of many analysts, came from Green candidate Annalena Baerbock.
Standing at a podium between the two other candidates, both old enough to be her father, Baerbock presented herself as a voice of the future, focused not on litigating the past but on saving the planet.
Yet given the Greens’ steep decline in recent weeks, Baerbock’s performance is unlikely to have much bearing on the outcome of the election.
Her fall from favor meant Sunday’s debate was effectively a duel between Scholz and Laschet and each largely ignored Baerbock to focus on the other.
Going by the post-debate polls, the standoff didn’t change many voters’ minds about the three candidates. Prior to the debate, 43 percent of those polled by public broadcaster ARD expressed support for Scholz, 19 percent for Laschet and 13 percent for Baerbock. Afterward, Scholz’s rating was unchanged. Laschet and Baerbock both improved by several points but remained well behind the finance minister.
That might be because the discussion focused on well-trodden ground, from pandemic policy to how the candidates would combat climate change.
The topic of foreign policy was all but absent from the discussion, despite the reality that Germany’s next leader will spend much of his or her time dealing with an increasingly unpredictable world. Europe was only mentioned in passing.
The candidates are due to face off a final time next Sunday. If that debate is anything like Sunday’s, the SPD may want to order more bubbly.