In campaign finale, Merkel seeks to swing tight race
In his first run for chancellor, Christian Democrat Armin Laschet risks losing the office that Angela Merkel held tight for conservatives for 16 years.
So a day before the nation’s most competitive election in almost two decades, Merkel will appear on the campaign trail one last time on Saturday to stump for her would-be successor.
Merkel will attempt to rev up voters in Laschet’s home town of Aachen, a city on the western edge of the republic that was once the seat of power for Charlemagne.
With voters signalling a desire for change, Germany’s long-time leader is making a push to salvage her legacy after sitting on the sidelines for most of the campaign.
The election’s unexpected front-runner, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, made his closing pitch on Friday to voters in Cologne, long a bastion for the SPD.
“We want a new beginning, a government led by the SPD,” Scholz told a crowd in central Cologne, the largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Laschet has governed as state premier since 2017.
With his trademark understated delivery, Scholz drew applause by pledging guaranteed pension levels and a hike in the minimum wage. The finance minister claimed credit for his part in shepherding Germany through the pandemic, helped by €400 billion in spending.
“We don’t need to be afraid” of such sums, he said, blasting Laschet for promising to cut taxes.
Laschet, 60, campaigned with Merkel in Munich on Friday. The chancellor urged party supporters to reach out to wavering voters in the final 50 hours.
Merkel on Friday pushed a steady-as-she-goes message, saying that “for Germany to remain stable, Armin Laschet needs to be chancellor.” Yet the shift in recent months to a “change” election from one of continuity comes as Europe’s largest economy also stands at an inflection point.
Candidates have vowed to upgrade the country’s digital infrastructure, combat climate change - especially after deadly floods shocked Germany in July - and grapple with the challenges of an ageing population.
The next chancellor will also have to contend with the transformation of Germany’s vaunted auto industry toward electric vehicles.
Polls show Laschet and Scholz running neck and neck ahead of the election on Sunday. Scholz pulled off a stunning surge over the summer from a distant third place behind Laschet and Green candidate Annalena Baerbock. Most observers wrote him off as recently as August.
The 63-year-old German finance chief, whose reserved delivery echoes that of Merkel, has gained traction by persuading voters he’s the right candidate to take over Germany’s economy.
Yet with polls showing the race tightening once more, Laschet is betting on a comeback that would allow him to claim the mandate to head the next government.
Even a narrow loss could imperil Laschet, though, with some party officials insisting that a second-place finish would disqualify the conservative bloc.
The SPD’s lead over Laschet’s CDU/CSU alliance shrank to 1 percentage point in an Allensbach poll for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published on Friday. Essentially, the race is too close to call.
The Green’s Baerbock, 40, whose initial promise dimmed over allegations of plagiarism and missteps in the campaign, also took her closing arguments to North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday, with a rally in state capital Dusseldorf. Earlier she appeared with climate protesters in Cologne, where demonstrators competed with Scholz’s rally.
At a campaign stop in Potsdam late Thursday, Baerbock spoke about the Green platform of tackling climate change, investing in health infrastructure and ruling out tax cuts for the wealthy. She portrayed herself as the choice for genuine change after four terms under Merkel, including three with the Social Democrats as a partner in government.
A shuttered wind-turbine plant in Brandenburg state “is the result of 16 years of CDU - and 12 of SPD,” Baerbock said to cheers from the crowd of several hundred in the state capital.
Party grandees will make their way to Berlin on Sunday, where first projections of the election result, based on exit polls, will be released at 6pm.
Election night will only be the start of a lengthy process of forging a governing coalition, which is likely to require three parties in Germany’s fragmented political landscape. A close result will make talks even more complicated; they could drag on for weeks or months.
Scholz would aim to take up preliminary talks for an alliance with the Greens and the Free Democrats, a match-up made difficult by the FDP’s hard line against new taxes and borrowing. The SPD could alternatively bring on the anti-capitalist Left party, though with that party’s rejection of armed missions abroad, it’s unlikely.
Should Laschet pull off a tight victory, he would also most likely lobby the Greens and FDP - a constellation that Merkel attempted in 2017 only to see it collapse when FDP Chairman Christian Lindner walked away.
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