Chancellor Angela Merkel dived into Germany’s election campaign on Tuesday to rally support for her struggling would-be heir.
In an unusually partisan speech, Mrs Merkel urged voters to back Armin Laschet, the nominee of the Christian Democrats (CDU) to succeed her as chancellor.
Mrs Merkel, who is not running at the election, attacked rival candidate Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) over a comment describing vaccine recipients as “guinea pigs”.
It came as a new poll deepened Mr Laschet’s woes. It showed only 19 per cent of voters planned to back his centre-right bloc on September 26.
Such a result would be comfortably the worst in the CDU’s post-war history. The SPD was in first place on 25 per cent.
Mr Laschet and his colleagues have sought to raise fears of a leftward lurch, seizing on the possibility that Mr Scholz could form a coalition with the far left.
Mr Scholz has evaded demands to rule out an alliance with the Linke, a party which alarms some voters because of its desire to dissolve Nato and its roots in the former East German Communists.
“Our citizens will have the choice in just a few days,” Mrs Merkel said during a three-hour parliamentary debate on Tuesday.
“Either a government with the SPD and Greens that accepts the support of the Linke, or at least doesn’t rule it out … or a government led by Armin Laschet that leads our country into the future with moderation.”
Her remarks led to an outcry from some politicians. “I don’t know where, if not here, questions like this should be discussed,” she said.
The chancellor has sought to distance herself from Mr Scholz after he openly pitched himself as the heir to her pragmatic brand of politics.
She faulted him for a comment he made in a radio interview in which he said that vaccinated Germans were “guinea pigs for those who have waited”.
Mr Scholz was trying to encourage uptake among the unvaccinated, but his choice of words led to widespread criticism.
“Of course, none of us has been a guinea pig in the vaccination campaign – nobody, not me or Olaf Scholz,” Mrs Merkel said on Tuesday.
Speaking later in the debate, Mr Scholz suggested his vaccine comments were a joke and said his critics “had little to laugh about in light of their polling numbers”.
“A new beginning is needed and I hope and I am sure that it will succeed,” he said of the election.
Mr Laschet used his own speech to swipe at both Mr Scholz and Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock.
Praising the chancellor, he said Mrs Merkel’s term in office since 2005 had been “16 good years for Germany”.
Ms Baerbock and Mr Laschet both enjoyed poll leads earlier in the campaign, before a series of stumbles opened the door for Mr Scholz.
The new chancellor will take office once a new coalition is agreed on, which is likely to take weeks or potentially longer.
Tuesday’s poll put the Greens in third place on 17 per cent, followed by the pro-business Free Democrats on 13 per cent.
The far-right Alternative for Germany was on 11 per cent, with the Linke in sixth place on 6 per cent.
The SPD and Greens are natural allies but look unlikely to land a majority by themselves, meaning they would need support from another party.
FDP leader Christian Lindner has played down talk of a three-way alliance with his party, which wants to cut taxes and take a lighter touch on climate change.
On the question of a deal with the Linke, Mr Scholz has said that any coalition deal would require the party to set aside its opposition to Nato.