Chancellor Angela Merkel’s struggling would-be heir hit back at suggestions that a centre-left rival is better qualified for the job after a televised debate four weeks ahead of Germany’s election failed to give him a clear breakthrough.
Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate from Mrs Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc, insisted that he was “not at all” frustrated by a poll following Sunday night’s debate.
It showed most viewers picking centre-left Social Democrat Olaf Scholz as the winner of the event, followed by environmentalist Green contender Annalena Baerbock and then Mr Laschet.
The mass-circulation Bild daily’s front page proclaimed it a “clear victory for Scholz on TV” and a “debate debacle for Laschet”.
The race for Germany’s September 26 parliamentary election, which has been marked by missteps first by Ms Baerbock and then Mr Laschet, is too close to call.
Recent polls show Ms Laschet’s Union bloc, which long enjoyed a lead, level with or even slightly behind Mr Scholz’s long-moribund Social Democrats, with the Greens a few points back.
Mrs Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005, chose not to run.
She said nearly three years ago that she would not seek a fifth term.
The experienced and unflappable Mr Scholz, the vice chancellor and finance minister in Mrs Merkel’s outgoing coalition government, has seen his personal ratings rise in surveys that suggest many voters are not impressed with the choices for chancellor that they face.
“Let’s let voters decide what they think is chancellor-like,” Mr Laschet said when asked at a news conference about the positive reviews of Mr Scholz’s performance.
“If you want Angela Merkel’s politics, you have to get away from this completely state-oriented Social Democratic election program.”
“I didn’t notice anything along those lines yesterday, and I didn’t see him as … a firework show of ideas,” he added.
He once again assailed Mr Scholz for refusing to rule out a coalition with the hard-left opposition Left Party, a possibility that the Union has repeatedly raised as its own ratings sink.
“That’s not chancellor-like,” Mr Laschet said.
“The chancellor would have given a clear answer.”
Mr Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, sought to focus on Monday on his pledges: no tax raises, modernisation, security and more coherence in foreign policy decisions.
He promoted his climate policy, which foresees making Germany “climate-neutral” by 2045 while still preserving industrial jobs, and has been criticised by the Greens as half-hearted.
“We are counting on innovation, on market mechanisms, which from our point of view are more promising than the bans we heard about again yesterday evening from the Social Democrats and Greens,” Mr Laschet said.
The Social Democrats declared themselves satisfied with the debate.
The party’s general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, said Mr Laschet is “fighting for his personal future” and still needs to convince his own party that he should be Germany’s next leader.
“We will go at full throttle for 27 days now … we want Olaf Scholz to become chancellor, and yesterday was an important milestone for that,” Mr Klingbeil told n-tv television.
Two more debates follow, on September 12 and 19.