Olaf Scholz has a plan to become the next Chancellor of Germany. Keep quiet.
For the third week running he won a leadership TV debate by saying the least and allowing his rivals to bluster.
The strategy may lead to victory in a contest to succeed Angela Merkel, a race which has yet to capture the imagination of the German public.
Pianist Markus Altenkamp may not be running for the German chancellorship, but he proved a bigger draw than Merkel’s potential successors among voters in Hamburg on Sunday night.
The cellar of a former printer’s shop was full of people during Mr Altenkamp’s recital, but largely emptied before the last of the election debates came on screen.
Those who stayed to watch were largely unimpressed as Armin Laschet, Mr Scholz and Annalena Baerbock crossed swords a week before polling day.
Viewers bemoaned a lack of discussion on issues such as foreign policy, school funding and care for the elderly, and an excessive focus on personalities.
“Many people find Olaf Scholz good. It doesn’t mean they find the Social Democrats good,” said one spectator in Hamburg.
Mr Laschet, the candidate of Mrs Merkel’s conservatives who has fallen behind in the polls, used the debate to renew his attacks on Mr Scholz.
Viewers were bemused when Mr Laschet passed up an invitation from moderators to pose a question to Ms Baerbock, the Green candidate, and instead invited her to criticise Mr Scholz.
But there was sympathy for Mr Laschet’s difficult task in leading the Christian Democrats without the popular, long-serving chancellor.
Herbert Bruhn, the owner of the venue in Hamburg, said Mrs Merkel’s popularity had masked the erosion of the party’s traditional middle-class base. “They’re only noticing it now,” he said.
But he said there was still time for Mr Laschet to come out on top. “It could still change because so many voters have not decided,” he said.
Mr Scholz tried to stay out of the fray, waiting patiently while the other two candidates squabbled over taxes and coronavirus policies in Europe's biggest economy.
A stopwatch count showed Mr Scholz speaking less than his two rivals – but a post-debate poll named him as the winner for the third time running.
It is the same strategy that has served Mr Scholz well throughout the campaign, after gaffes by his two rivals helped him rise from third to first in the polls.
“He’s the smooth one who lets the others take the heat,” said another viewer. But she was not persuaded by Mr Scholz. “He tells fairytales,” she said.
Others recalled how Mrs Merkel had been an unconvincing candidate at times before taking office in 2005. “People didn’t take her seriously at first,” said one voter.
Mr Scholz has sought to portray himself as Mrs Merkel’s natural successor despite being from a rival party, drawing a rebuke from the chancellor.
Mr Laschet played on divisions on the left by praising controversial labour reforms passed by a previous SPD-Green government in the early 2000s. Both parties now want to rethink these.
Mr Scholz and Ms Baerbock indicated that they would like to form a coalition after the election, but they are likely to need a third partner.
Returning to a favourite theme, Mr Laschet raised the spectre of a three-way tie-up with the far-left Linke. “For my part, I would rule out any coalition with extremists,” he said.
The candidates heard from German voters with a series of different predicaments. One woman in traditional Bavarian dress held her phone to the sky in a desperate attempt for farmland internet access.
An unvaccinated woman complained about being excluded from her child’s parents’ evening because of Covid-19, but all three candidates called for more inoculations.
All called for efforts to tackle climate change, but disagreed on how to achieve this. Ms Baerbock accused her two rivals of dragging their feet on Germany's exit from coal.
About four million of Germany's 83m population watched the debate. There was scarcely a mention of EU or foreign policy despite continuing questions about Europe’s place in the world.
“I think it’s a shame," said one viewer. “Germany’s future is watched around the world."
Election race reaches final lap
Sunday’s debate kicked off the final week of the campaign, with all three candidates making a last-minute push for votes.
Mr Scholz’s campaign stops include the auto industry centre of Wolfsburg and the historic city of Cologne. Ms Baerbock’s last scheduled event is in Dusseldorf with party co-leader Robert Habeck.
Mr Laschet will seek to bring Mrs Merkel’s popularity to bear when she joins him at a rally in Aachen, his home town, on the last day of campaigning.
A TV special on Thursday will involve politicians from all six parties represented in the Parliament.
Polls open at 8am local time on Sunday – although it is expected that a record number of people will have voted early by post.
An exit poll will give an early indication of results when polls close at 6pm. It usually gives an accurate picture, but an official count will not be revealed until later that night.
Attention will then turn to coalition talks. While a clear lead for Mr Laschet, Mr Scholz or Ms Baerbock would put them on course to be the next chancellor, it is likely to be weeks or months before they take office.
Mrs Merkel will remain in office until a new government is formed. After the 2017 election, it took six months for a coalition to be agreed.
Polls suggest the picture could be more complicated than ever this year, with at least three parties potentially needed to form a government.