Frontrunner to replace Merkel on defensive in TV debate

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Election campaign posters of the Christian Union parties show Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, left, with the slogan: “Determined for Germany” and the Social Democratic Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz with the slogan “Chancellor for Germany – Whoever wants Scholz votes the SPD’ at a street Germany, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN (AP) — In the second of three pre-election debates, the frontrunner to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor faced tough questions Sunday over whether his ministry had a role in obstructing money-laundering probes.

Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, who is currently Germany’s finance minister, denied his office was being directly investigated by prosecutors who carried out searches last week at the country’s finance and justice ministries.

The attack came from his closest rival, Armin Laschet of the center-right Union bloc, who followed up with salvos over two other financial scandals that have raised questions about Scholz’s oversight in his roles as minister and previously mayor of Hamburg.

“If my finance minister were to work the way you do, we’d have a serious problem,” Laschet told Scholz.

The first debate two weeks ago was widely called for Scholz, whose party has taken the lead in recent opinion polls, ahead of Laschet’s Union bloc. Merkel, who chose not to run for a fifth term, said this week that her Union bloc always expected to have to fight to retain power after her 16 years in office.

Much of Sunday’s debate was devoted to substantive issues, including the parties’ policies on housing, health, pensions, taxation and immigration.

Despite seeing her party slip in the polls, Green party candidate Annalena Baerbock largely refrained from personal attacks on her rivals and focused instead on her signature issues of social justice and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The next government is the last one that can still actively influence the climate crisis,” said Baerbock, arguing that Germany needs to bring forward its deadline for phasing out coal from 2038 to 2030.

Laschet defended Merkel’s 2015 decision to leave Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in Syria and elsewhere, but refused to disown a candidate who has polarized members of his own party with anti-immigrant comments.

Scholz, who is seen by many as the continuity candidate despite belonging to a different party than Merkel, pitched himself as the leader who would build on the sense of solidarity seen during the coronavirus pandemic, by raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing stable pensions for decades to come — in part by reintroducing a wealth tax for the richest in Germany.

The third and final debate takes place Sept. 23, three days before the election.

Slightly over 60 million Germans will elect a new parliament Sept. 26. The party with the most seats will seek to form a coalition government and gets its candidate elected as chancellor by lawmakers.

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