Frontrunner to replace Merkel on defensive over money scandals in TV debate

Olaf Scholz denied his office was being directly investigated by prosecutors

Photo: AP From left, Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz (SPD), Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) and Armin Laschet (CDU) stand in the TV studio in Berlin, 12 September 2021.

In the second of three pre-election debates, the frontrunner to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor faced tough questions Sunday over whether his ministry had a role in obstructing money-laundering probes, AP reported. Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, who is currently Germany’s finance minister, denied his office was being directly investigated by prosecutors who carried out searches last week at the country’s finance and justice ministries.

The attack came from his closest rival, Armin Laschet of the center-right Union bloc, who followed up with salvos over two other financial scandals that have raised questions about Scholz’s oversight in his roles as minister and previously mayor of Hamburg.

“If my finance minister were to work the way you do, we’d have a serious problem,” Laschet told Scholz.

The first debate two weeks ago was widely called for Scholz, whose party has taken the lead in recent opinion polls, ahead of Laschet’s Union bloc. Merkel, who chose not to run for a fifth term, said this week that her Union bloc always expected to have to fight to retain power after her 16 years in office.

Much of Sunday’s debate was devoted to substantive issues, including the parties’ policies on housing, health, pensions, taxation and immigration.

Despite seeing her party slip in the polls, Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock largely refrained from personal attacks on her rivals and focused instead on her signature issues of social justice and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The next government is the last one that can still actively influence the climate crisis,” said Baerbock, arguing that Germany needs to bring forward its deadline for phasing out coal from 2038 to 2030.

Laschet defended Merkel’s 2015 decision to leave Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in Syria and elsewhere, but refused to disown a candidate who has polarized members of his own party with anti-immigrant comments.

Scholz, who is seen by many as the continuity candidate despite belonging to a different party than Merkel, pitched himself as the leader who would build on the sense of solidarity seen during the coronavirus pandemic, by raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing stable pensions for decades to come — in part by reintroducing a wealth tax for the richest in Germany.

Polls by broadcasters ARD and ZDF showed Scholz came out ahead in the debate and was seen as more convincing and more competent. The Infratest-Dimap and Forschungsgruppe institutes both put Scholz as the overall winner.

In the ZDF poll, 46% said they would prefer Scholz as chancellor after the debate, compared to 28% who preferred Laschet. But Laschet did make up some ground, as only 19% preferred him before the debate, while 55 per cent had preferred Scholz, dpa reported.

Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock remained more or less level at 19% before and 20% after.

The third and final debate will take place on 23 September, three days before the election.

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