Armin Laschet went on the offensive in a TV debate on Sunday as he sought to revive his bid to be Germany’s next chancellor.
With four weeks left to the election day, Mr Laschet berated rival candidate Olaf Scholz for not ruling out a coalition with the far left. He also attacked Green candidate Annalena Baerbock over her climate policies.
But a snap opinion poll suggested that Mr Laschet had failed to make a breakthrough, with only 25 per cent of viewers saying he won the debate. Mr Scholz was first with 36 per cent, ahead of Ms Baerbock on 30 per cent.
Mr Laschet, the candidate of Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc, used his closing statement to offer voters “stability and reliability in difficult times”.
But Mr Scholz, a Social Democrat, is threatening to steal his thunder with his own pragmatic pitch – leading Mr Laschet to remark that his rival was “playing at being Merkel”.
The Social Democrats (SPD) have led recent polls in a closely-fought campaign, which has seen Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock plagued by personal gaffes.
Mr Laschet sought to reverse the slide in Sunday’s debate. He accused Ms Baerbock of a prescriptive green agenda which would hurt the economy.
“You’re putting shackles on the feet of industry and then telling it to run faster,” said Mr Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU).
He accused Mr Scholz of equivocating over whether he would work with the Linke, a far-left party descended from East Germany’s former ruling Communists.
“I can’t understand why it’s so difficult for you to say you won’t work with this party,” he said. “I can say this – I won’t work with them.”
A new chancellor will take office once a coalition is agreed following the September 26 election. Ms Merkel is not seeking another term.
Mr Scholz said any coalition deal would have to accept Germany’s membership of Nato. The Linke wants to dissolve the alliance.
The SPD candidate, who remained typically calm during the debate, used his closing pitch to promise a higher minimum wage and stable pensions.
Ms Baerbock called for renewal, highlighting the fact that the parties of her two rivals had been in government together for the past eight years.
She accused the CDU and SPD of doing too little to fight climate change, especially after this summer’s devastating floods.
Mr Laschet was badly damaged by the floods after cameras caught him chuckling with colleagues during a sombre speech by Germany’s president.
“You obviously don’t have a plan,” Ms Baerbock said of her two rivals. She promised to install solar panels on every new roof.
All three candidates said no further coronavirus lockdowns should be necessary, but called for efforts to increase vaccine uptake.
Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock were critical of the government’s response to the Afghanistan crisis, after the Nato withdrawal led to the fall of Kabul.
The Taliban victory was a “disaster for the west, and also a disaster for the federal government,” said Mr Laschet, who is currently a regional governor.
“We have to strengthen Europe, so that one day we can secure an airport like Kabul even without the Americans.”
Ms Baerbock accused CDU and SPD ministers of failing to co-ordinate a response to rescue people from Afghanistan.
“We Germans have a responsibility in the world. If our options are limited, we at least have to rescue people we promised to bring to safety,” she said.
Mr Scholz highlighted increased military spending during his term as Finance Minister, a role he has held since 2018.