BERLIN (Reuters) -The conservative candidate to be German chancellor took on his Social Democrat rival in a TV debate on Sunday, two weeks before elections, pressing him on his record on tackling money-laundering and whether he would ally with a far-left party.
Armin Laschet’s conservative bloc is trailing the Social Democrats (SPD) in polls and, in a combative start to the prime-time debate, he sought to undermine the credibility of the centre-left party’s Olaf Scholz, currently finance minister.
Laschet accused Scholz of failing in his supervision responsibilities in light of raids last week https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/german-prosecutors-search-ministries-over-money-laundering-probe-2021-09-09 on the finance and justice ministries that were part of an investigation into the government’s anti money-laundering agency.
“If my finance minister were to work like you, then we would have a serious problem,” said Laschet.
Scholz, unruffled, cast Laschet a steely look and countered that his opponent was being “dishonest” by giving the false impression that there was an investigation into his ministry, whereas investigators simply needed information from the ministry.
The conservatives are missing the pulling power of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not running again after four election victories and 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy.
An opinion poll on Sunday showed that the SPD had extended their lead over the conservatives. The INSA poll put the SPD on 26%, up a point from a week ago and at their highest rating since June 2017. The conservatives were unchanged at 20% and the Greens were down 1 point at 15%.
In the last three months the conservatives have lost 8-9 percentage points, and the parliamentary election is fast-approaching on Sept. 26
Laschet, the jovial leader of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, is trying to make up lost ground after making mistakes during the campaign.
In a damaging gaffe, he was caught on camera laughing during a visit to a town hit by lethal floods in July. He apologised.
This week’s edition of the influential Spiegel magazine has a front-cover picture of Laschet holding his hands in front of his mouth with the headline “Oooops”.
In Sunday’s TV debate, Laschet also pressed Scholz on whether he would form an alliance with the Greens and the far-left Linke, which opposes NATO and is critical of many aspects of the EU.
Scholz again declined to rule out working with the Linke, arguing first that voters must have their say in the election. However, he made clear that there were clear differences between the parties which would make a coalition very difficult.
“An acknowledgement of transatlantic relations, to NATO and the European Union are necessary for a good government,” said Scholz, still the most popular of the three candidates, who also include the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock.
Most experts think a three-way coalition is the most likely outcome of the election – a scenario that could take several months to negotiate during which time Merkel remains chancellor.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Catherine Evans and Pravin Char)