Angela Merkel intervened to help her party’s under-fire candidate Armin Laschet on Tuesday after he fell behind in the race to succeed her as German chancellor.
Mr Laschet’s campaign is struggling to hold back momentum for rival candidate Olaf Scholz, who has openly touted himself as Mrs Merkel’s natural heir — even adopting her signature hand gesture.
Making a rare intervention in the campaign, Ms Merkel sought to pour cold water on Mr Scholz’s efforts. “There’s a huge difference between me and him,” she said.
Borrowing Mr Laschet’s attack line from a TV debate on Sunday, she faulted Mr Scholz over his failure to rule out a coalition with the far-left Linke party.
“With me as chancellor, there would never be a coalition involving the Linke,” she said. “Whether or not Olaf Scholz shares this view is an open question.”
Mr Laschet became leader of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in January but has struggled to persuade Germans that he should succeed her as chancellor.
Although Mr Scholz is from the rival Social Democrats (SPD), he has worked under Mrs Merkel as a coalition finance minister and earned a reputation for level-headed pragmatism.
He recently posed for a photo with his hands in a diamond shape — a gesture used by Mrs Merkel and a symbol of her reassuring style.
Recent polls have shown a bounce for Mr Scholz. A new survey published on Tuesday gave the SPD a two-point lead over Mr Laschet’s bloc.
There is no prospect of either party winning a majority, meaning that Mr Scholz or Mr Laschet will need to form a coalition to become chancellor. The SPD and CDU have worked together in a “grand coalition” since 2013.
Pressed by Mr Laschet during Sunday’s debate, Mr Scholz failed to rule out working with the Linke but said the party would have to accept Germany’s membership of Nato.
The SPD, Greens and Linke have worked together at state level, but there has previously been little enthusiasm for a coalition at national level.
The Linke is seen as unacceptable by the CDU because of its far-left views and descent from East Germany’s former ruling Communists.
Mr Laschet renewed his attack in an appearance at a business summit on Tuesday attended by numerous leading figures on the German right.
He accused Mr Scholz of keeping open the possibility of a coalition with the Linke to persuade more moderate parties to work with him.
“I expect a clear yes or no,” he said. “Will the Linke be part of a German government on September 26? I think we can expect a candidate for chancellor to make a clear statement on this.”
He issued a warning that the SPD and the Greens, who have fallen off the pace in the race for the chancellorship, would damage the economy with new taxes.
Restrictions on everyday life that were brought in because of Covid-19 should not become a model for tougher regulation more generally, he said.
“Now especially, there cannot be any increase in taxes,” he said. “The coronavirus method won’t work after the pandemic.”
Two more debates involving Mr Laschet, Mr Scholz and the Greens' candidate Annalena Baerbock are planned before the election.
Ms Merkel, whose approval ratings are consistently higher than all three, is not seeking a fifth term after 16 years in office.