Merkel’s candidate struggles to revive flagging fortunes

Candidates for chancellor from left, Armin Laschet, Annalena Baerbock and Olaf Scholz stand before the broadcast in the TV studio in Berlin on Aug 29, 2021. (MICHAEL KAPPELER / POOL VIA AP)

BERLIN – The conservative candidate to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to revive his campaign in a heated debate with his two main rivals on Sunday, according to a snap poll, as surveys show his party falling behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), attacked the SPD's chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, for not ruling out a coalition with the far-left Linke party and sought to strike a chord with voters as the CDU frets about its ratings.

A snap survey of voters by pollster Forsa after the debate showed 36 percent believed centre-left Social Democrats' (SPD) chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, won, ahead of 30 percent for Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock and 25 percent for Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU)

But a snap survey of voters by pollster Forsa after the debate showed 36 percent believed Scholz won, ahead of 30 percent for Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock and 25 percent for Laschet.

"I have felt headwinds now and again, as I do now," a combative Laschet said in his closing remarks.

"But aren't we all feeling the winds of change blowing us in the face? At times like these, we need steadfastness, dependability and an internal compass. That is what I offer."

Germany goes to the polls on Sept 26 when Merkel steps down as chancellor after 16 years in office and four straight national election victories. Merkel's imminent departure has weakened support for her conservative alliance.

For much of the debate, Laschet traded barbs with Baerbock, who accused the CDU and SPD of doing too little to fight climate change, especially given devastating floods this summer.

"You obviously don't have a plan," Baerbock said of the other two, pledging to install solar panels on every roof and ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles from 2030.

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Laschet, who has been under fire since he was caught on camera laughing during a visit last month to a town hit by floods, said Baerbock's policies would hurt German industry.

In a hypothetical direct vote for chancellor, an INSA poll conducted for newspaper Bild am Sonntag showed that Scholz would take 31 percent of the vote, compared with 10 percent for Laschet and 14 percent for Baerbock

"You shackle industry and then tell them to run faster," he said. He added later: "I don't know whether citizens understood everything there with the programmes that Mrs. Baerbock has just described."

Scholz keeps calm

Scholz, who is the most popular of the candidates in polls, kept calm as the exchange became heated, focusing on financial topics such as taxes and pensions. He promised "a society that values respect. Respect for everyone."

"And that is why we need better pay, a higher minimum wage, and of course also stable pensions," he said, adding: "We have to stop man-made climate change and ensure that we still have good jobs in 10, 20 and 30 years."

Support for the SPD rose 2 points from last week to 24 percent, their highest result in four years, according to an INSA poll conducted for newspaper Bild am Sonntag. The conservatives slipped a point to 21 percent, their lowest ever polled by INSA.

It was the second survey in the past week that has put the SPD ahead. Support for Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has been falling in recent weeks.

In a hypothetical direct vote for chancellor, the INSA poll showed that Scholz would take 31 percent of the vote, compared with 10 percent for Laschet and 14 percent for Baerbock.

READ MORE: Germany's ruling conservatives move up in polls

Despite the SPD's lead in the polls, they would still need to team up with two other parties to govern.