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German election: SPD's Olaf Scholz wins final TV debate

September 20, 2021

The center-left Social Democrats and Greens presented a united front in the third and final TV debate, with a snap poll seeing the SPD's Olaf Scholz as the clear winner. But the CDU's Armin Laschet remains close behind.

Olaf Scholz,  Annalena Baerbock and Armin Laschet take part in a final election debate
The three candidates looking to replace Angela Merkel faced off for the last time before Germany heads to the pollsImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and his Green party rival Annalena Baerbock often showed a united front against the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) Armin Laschet in the third and last TV debate ahead of next Sunday's election.

The candidates are the front-runners in the race to replace outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At the end of another 90 minutes of spiky argument in what has turned into an ever-tighter election race, both Baerbock and then Scholz suggested that it would be "good if the CDU were to enter the opposition," though they were keen underline that they would be willing to negotiate with all parties except the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

Laschet, meanwhile, appeared notably less aggressive than during last Sunday's debate. This time, he saved until the end his usual accusations that his center-left opponents were scheming to bring the socialist Left party into government.

Baerbock, by contrast, appeared more impatient with Laschet, at one point wondering out loud what "was wrong" with her conservative opponent. 

The overall numbers continue to favor Scholz. A Forsa poll released shortly after the debate by the Sat 1 TV network showing that 42% of viewers thought that the Social Democrat had won the debate, followed by 27% for Laschet and 25% for Baerbock.

That was broadly in line with the latest national opinion poll, published by INSA, which had the same rankings, albeit with a much narrower lead for the SPD with 26%, compared to the CDU's 21% and the Greens' 15%.

Tackling poverty

The fronts hardened early on in what turned into an unexpectedly in-depth debate.

The network punctuated the discussion with TV reports on the issues, voter vox pops, and one moderator producing a 30-year-old comic book to illustrate that climate change had already apparently been an issue deemed fit for children in the 1990s.

When discussion turned to tackling poverty, Scholz and Baerbock aligned often, nodding in agreement and picking up each other's points, to the extent that they appeared at times to have already formed a partnership.

Both the Social Democrat and Green candidates repeated their calls for a new minimum wage of €12 ($14) an hour, up from the current €9.60.

This was rejected by Laschet, on the grounds that employers and trade unions should agree fair wages among themselves. Many major trade unions are demanding a €12 minimum wage.

Yet Baerbock did not let Scholz entirely off the hook, challenging the current finance minister's party both on its record in government with the CDU and later on financial transparency.

"You (addressing Laschet) governed for 16 years and you (pointing to Scholz) governed alongside them for 12, and the divide between rich and poor only got wider," said Baerbock.

Climate crisis in focus

The climate crisis also took up a lot of time, a conversation preceded by a montage of images showing the devastation caused by July's deadly flooding in western Germany.

Scholz presented himself as the candidate willing to engage with enormous challenge of making the German industrial economy climate neutral by 2045 (the SPD's current target).

He repeated a line that he has made his own during the campaign, that the country was facing "the biggest modernization that Germany has ever undertaken."

Laschet, meanwhile, claimed that the CDU had been among the first parties to address climate change, under the government of Helmut Kohl, before blaming the Greens for fighting nuclear power before coal power — also a line that he had uttered last week too.

German climate activists on hunger strike

For Baerbock the climate issue has its traps: The German media occasionally delights in presenting the Greens as the party out to ban Germans' simplest German pleasures: Eating meat and flying abroad on holiday.

One moderator challenged Baerbock along those lines, asking: "Life under a Green government sounds a little uncomfortable, doesn't it?"

"No, not at all," Baerbock responded. "Green life means freedom, it means freedom for your children and grandchildren. The next government has to be a climate government. If we do nothing then the future will be unaffordable."

Laschet zeroes in on domestic security

Laschet found his solid ground when the subject turned to internal security, in the aftermath of what authorities believe was a thwarted Islamist attack on a synagogue in the town of Hagen.

The conservative politician attempted to draw differences between himself and his opponents, arguing that the SPD and Greens in his state of North Rhine-Westphalia had been against deporting those considered dangerous by intelligence agencies.

The discussion ended with the inevitable coalition-building question, and just as inevitably, none of the candidates would be drawn on which coalition partners they preferred.

Another victory for Olaf Scholz: DW's Michaela Küfner analyzes final TV debate

Nevertheless, the preceding discussion had made it clear enough that the SPD and Greens feel an affinity.

The only trouble is that, according to the current opinion polls, no two German parties will have a workable parliamentary majority, and Laschet could yet narrow the gaps further.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight