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  1. German Election 2021
30 August 2021

German election TV debate win adds to Olaf Scholz’s momentum in the race to succeed Angela Merkel

The SPD candidate was the clear winner in snap polling after the first of three encounters.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Last night (29 August) the first of three TV debates in the campaign ahead of Germany’s federal election on 26 September took place. Ahead of the event each of the three participants – the chancellor candidates of the three parties with a serious chance of leading the next government – faced a slightly different task.

Listen here to the first two episodes of Germany Elects, the New Statesman’s podcast series on the German election.

Armin Laschet, the candidate of Merkel’s centre-right CDU and its CSU allies, had to go on the attack; his frontrunner status had been slipping away in recent weeks thanks to a lacklustre and gaffe-prone campaign. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s vice chancellor and finance minister, and candidate of the centre-left SPD, had to guard to his greatest asset: his status in this campaign as the ersatz-Merkel, the guarantor of stability and continuity in a country that generally likes those things. And Annalena Baerbock of the Greens had to hold her own in what was the first such campaign debate to feature a Green chancellor candidate and, as the least experienced, demonstrate seriousness and substance.  

And the truth is that all three did what they had to do. In an encounter that ranged across foreign policy, the pandemic, tax and spending, social cohesion, climate change and possible coalitions, Laschet, Scholz and Baerbock all broadly delivered.

The CDU/CSU candidate and minister-president of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia strove to style himself as a quasi-outsider: responding to criticisms of his state’s record on Covid-19 by reminding Baerbock that the Greens sit in governing coalitions in 11 of Germany’s 16 states; and criticising Scholz for the SPD’s opposition in federal government to the use of armed drones (in Afghanistan, for example). His second-half performance had its flaws, with waffly answers on the environment and patronising flickers in his exchanges with Baerbock, but concluded with a solid final statement calling for “steadfastness” in the face of rough new headwinds. He asked: “Do we not all feel the wind of change blowing on our faces?” It was as decent an attempt to use his new semi-underdog status as could reasonably be expected.

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Scholz pulled off the Merkel impression to a fault. His words were calm and often soothingly vague; he attempted no flights of rhetoric; where Laschet and Baerbock darted and wove, he plodded and often ended up between the two. Which is not to say that he did not respond to barbs (dissolving Laschet’s drones criticism in a rumination on past defence cuts). His strongest line came when, asked about the enduring east-west divide, he recalled representing eastern workers in the 1990s in legal disputes against the Treuhand, the agency winding up the old state industries. And he managed to wriggle out of a difficult question on whether the SPD would form a government with the Greens and the socialist Left Party; Scholz would prefer to lead one with the Greens and the conservative-liberal FDP but does not want to forfeit leverage by closing down alternatives. 

Baerbock was the most impressive. Unlike her rivals, the Green candidate has never contested, won or held the leadership of one of Germany’s federal states or held executive power. Yet she more than held her own by, for example, batting away Laschet’s put-downs: challenging the cliché that Greens merely want to ban things for the sake of banning; pushing him to spell out what his tax plans would mean for a single parent with two kids; and, when lured into a squabble over political correctness, rising above it with the reasonable assertion that “we are a diverse society and this diversity should become normality”. She also deftly bridged the gap between her leftish party base and centrist swing voters: for example, opposing Nato’s defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP not on traditional pacifist grounds but under the claim that it is an arbitrary goal that prioritises means over ends.

All three essentially delivered. And yet there was only one clear winner: Scholz. In a snap poll by Forsa that probably reflected the confirmation of prior perceptions more than it did his performance, he triumphed. To the question “Who do you tend to trust to lead the country?” fully 47 per cent named the SPD candidate, with 24 per cent for Laschet and 20 per cent for Baerbock. The question of who won the debate itself was slightly narrower but still clear: 36 per cent called it for Scholz, 30 per cent for Baerbock and just 25 per cent for Laschet. Narrowest was the question of which seemed most sympathetic: here Scholz (38 per cent) was only just ahead of Baerbock (37 per cent), with Laschet trailing far behind on a dismal 22 per cent. Today’s (30 August) Bild, a conservative tabloid traditionally close to the CDU/CSU and Germany’s most-read newspaper, is emphatic: “Clear victory for Scholz in TV” runs its front-page headline. 

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Relatively few Germans will have tuned into last night’s debate, which was hosted by the private broadcasters RTL and n-tv. But the outcome confirms and will add to the sense of momentum behind Scholz and the SPD, which is now neck-and-neck with the CDU/CSU in polling averages and has overtaken it in some individual polls. One by INSA published on Saturday gave it a three-point lead, at 24 per cent to 21 per cent. The vice chancellor’s bet on experience, a Merkel-ish demeanour and simple social democratic wedge policies, including an increase in the minimum wage from €9.60 to €12, seems to be paying off. Baerbock too will be pleased with her performance, though it remains to be seen whether it will reverse the drop-off in Green support (down from about 19 per cent in mid-August to about 17 per cent in the New Statesman’s poll tracker). 

Meanwhile in the CDU/CSU the mood is approaching something like panic. Speaking to Bild shortly after the debate, the CDU health minister Jens Spahn called for a “change of strategy and tactics”. Laschet’s team are betting on a series of upcoming policy announcements and on the two remaining TV debates in September. But with less than four weeks to go, and postal voting having already begun, time is getting short. 

Viewed from a wider perspective, there was one other winner: German democracy. The debate left some important topics (such as the dismal state of the country’s digital infrastructure) uncovered. But it was truly welcome to see the moderators lead in with a discussion of Afghanistan and Germany’s under-discussed place in the world. And overall the debate was well-structured and moderated; the contrast with the one, farcical TV debate of the 2017 election campaign, in which the two leading chancellor candidates were quizzed on a poorly chosen range of topics by no fewer than four presenters, was a credit to RTL and n-tv. Moreover, the exchanges between the candidates were respectful, at points robust, and shed light on the differences between the parties. In a political culture that can at points feel frustratingly staid and parochial, that was all welcome indeed. It is to be hoped that the remaining two debates continue in that vein.