Race for bronze heats up in Germany election campaign

In the Bundestag, opposition politicians released four years of frustration with Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in the German Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in the German Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

Germany’s outgoing Bundestag closed its doors on Tuesday with a rhetorical showdown and the promise of more to come in the parliament to emerge from the September 24th federal election.

As the clock wound down on the 18th Bundestag, politicians from the Left and Green opposition parties released four years of pent-up frustration with the centrist German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Left Party parliamentary leader Sahra Wagenknecht drew an unflattering comparison between the dynamic French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the low-key German leader.

While Mr Macron had founded a new political movement, La République en Marche!, Dr Wagenknecht suggested that Dr Merkel’s politics could be best described as “La République en Trance”.

Despite a booming economy, some 40 per cent of Germans have a lower income now than in the 1990s, she said. “I think most people have given up hope of a political change.”

Green Party coleader Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, turning to the chancellor, said: “I see nothing fresh left in you, Frau Merkel.”

The Greens and Left Party, neck-and-neck in opinion polls, were joined in a lively television debate on Monday evening by two other parties vying for Bundestag seats: the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), ousted in 2013, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

With Dr Merkel’s Christian Democrats enjoying a steady, 14-point lead over its outgoing coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), all of Germany’s smaller parties are polling 7-10 per cent.

That means the race for third place is still open and, with it, the power to shape Germany’s next coalition government. No surprises, then, that all showed sharp rhetoric and elbows in their head-to-head television debate.

Left-right split

On the refugee crisis and its consequences, party leaders split on right-left lines. Greens and Left Party insisted it was “inhuman” to deport well-integrated new arrivals whose asylum applications are declined. Right-wing parties, meanwhile, outdid each other with law-and-order demands for more police – even soldiers – patrolling city streets.

FDP leader Christian Linder demanded “robust talks” with north African countries that refused to take back their citizens whose asylum applications fail.

“Whoever has no right to stay needs to go back as quickly as possible,” he said.

Anxious not to be outdone, leader of the far-right AfD, Alice Weidel, said it was a scandal that 630,000 refused asylum seekers who arrived since 2015 were still living in Germany. Within seconds, it was pointed out that the true figure is 226,000. Meanwhile figures she quoted about nitrogen oxide levels, as part of a discussion over looming diesel bans, were also dismissed by the debate hosts as “untrue and you know it”.

Correctiv, a fact-checking platform, criticised the AfD for its “parrot-like repetition of claims . . . already known to be clearly incorrect”.

But with the AfD picking up voters from across the political spectrum, it was no surprise that Germany’s youngest – and most controversial – party came under attack from all other leaders in the debate.

Merkel leaves the plenum during a session of the German Bundestag in Berlin,. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA
Merkel leaves the plenum during a session of the German Bundestag in Berlin,. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

The sharpest exchange was between the hard-left leader Sahra Wagenknecht, who asked Dr Weidel how she will feel sitting in the Bundestag alongside “semi-Nazis” who regularly make racist remarks and cause xenophobic scandals.

Last week, in the most recent outburst, an AfD leader suggested Dr Merkel’s German-Turkish integration minister, born in Hamburg, should be “dumped in Anatolia”.

Many academics

Dr Weidel declined to answer how she felt, insisting these were “individual cases”, and suggested AfD candidates had, between them, the largest number of academics of any party.

Mr Lindner suggested education is no antidote for extremist views, adding: “This isn’t about academic titles but character.”

Back in the Bundestag on Tuesday, Dr Merkel used her final address to warn that growing challenges – from digitalisation to e-mobility – will require a greater effort from Germans to keep up.

“We are not in the lead in all areas of digital progress,” she said. “We don’t want to end up living in a technical museum but at the cutting edge.”

With an eye on the Bundestag clock, she picked up the pace at the end of her speech because “my time will soon be over”.

As the chamber erupted in laughter, Dr Merkel, running for a fourth term, corrected herself: “My speaking time. Has it really come to this?”