© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during a news conference with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama at Tirana Business Park, in Tirana, Albania, September 14, 2021. REUTERS/Florion Goga/File Photo
By Christoph Steitz and Paul Carrel
FRANKFURT/BERLIN (Reuters) -Social Democrat Olaf Scholz brushed off a last-gasp attack from his conservative rival in a televised election debate on Sunday, cementing his position as front runner to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel after Germans go to the polls in a week.
The debate, the last of three ahead of Germany’s national election slated for Sept. 26, comes as pressure on the conservative Christian Democratic Union party candidate Armin Laschet intensified to close a gap in polls which have consistently put him behind SPD’s Scholz.
Scholz, who serves as finance minister, used the issue of social inequality to lash out at his main opponent, reiterating that as chancellor he would push through a minimum wage of 12 euros ($14.08) per hour, something the CDU opposes.
“Mr Laschet, that may be the difference between you and me. I’m not doing that because there is an election campaign right now. I have made this demand for years,” Scholz said.
“To me it’s about the dignity of citizens. That is, however, what perhaps distinguishes us on this issue.”
A snap poll shortly after the event, which also included Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and featured issues ranging from climate change to digitalisation and security, declared Scholz as winner, giving him a clean sweep in the series of debates.
Earlier, an INSA poll for Bild am Sonntag had put the SPD at 26% support, stable from a week ago, while the conservative bloc of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, added half a percentage point to come in at 21%.
The gap has been even wider in polls measuring the popularity of the individual chancellor candidates, indicating the uphill struggle Laschet is facing against Scholz ahead of the election.
Laschet has been under fire since he was caught on camera laughing during a visit in the summer to a flood-stricken town.
Current polls, which show a highly fragmented picture as voters increasingly flock to smaller parties, leave room for several coalition scenarios, giving the liberal Free Democrats a potential king-maker role in upcoming coalition talks.
FDP party chief Christian Lindner on Sunday rebuffed demands by the CDU to rule out a so-called traffic light coalition with the SPD and the Greens. “We will not take orders from this (CDU),” he said at a party event.
Meantime, Scholz on Sunday expressed his preference for a coalition with the Greens, which current polls put at 15%.
Merkel’s chief of staff had earlier called on all parties to agree quickly on who should succeed her after the election and avoid the kind of protracted coalition talks that followed the last vote four years ago.
The likelihood of long coalition talks after the vote means Merkel will not be leaving office any time soon. She remains chancellor until a majority of Bundestag lawmakers elect a successor, who is then sworn in.
“My wish is for a swift government formation,” Helge Braun told Reuters, adding that even though the current government would continue to govern during looming coalition talks there were certain limitations over the scope of leadership.
“So I warn against losing time due to a very long government formation. One can certainly ask for the parties to swiftly express their preferences after the election over what their favoured coalitions are – so that one does not endlessly lose time in discussions.”
There are no formal restrictions on Merkel’s powers until a successor is chosen, but she is a consensus seeker and previous chancellors have not taken radical decisions during this time.
Following Germany’s last general election in 2017, it took a record six months before the new government was sworn in.
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