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First German election debate reveals gulf on climate change policy

German politics updates

The three candidates vying to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor clashed on Sunday evening in their first televised debate, with differences over how to tackle climate change dominating the discussion.

The debate came with polls suggesting the election on September 26 is wide open, with no party likely to garner more than a quarter of the vote. The centre-right CDU/CSU and left-of-centre Social Democrats are running almost neck and neck, with the opposition Greens not far behind.

Armin Laschet, CDU/CSU leader and chancellor candidate, is under intense pressure to improve the party’s performance, with some polling data suggesting it risks being booted out of the chancellery after 16 years in power.

Finance minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate for chancellor, enjoys the highest approval ratings of the three, far ahead of Laschet and Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate.

In the debate on private broadcasters RTL and n-tv — the first of three before polling day — the three agreed more than they disagreed, with wide consensus on issues such as Afghanistan and the coronavirus pandemic.

But they sparred intensely when it came to climate change, an issue the Greens have made their own.

Baerbock said her party would turn over 2 per cent of German territory to wind turbines, oblige all newly built houses to have solar panels on their roofs, bring forward the phasing-out of highly polluting lignite brown coal, and only allow emissions-free cars to be sold from 2030.

Laschet said the Greens wanted to burden German business with excessive rules and prohibitions. “You’re putting fetters on industry’s feet and saying: ‘Now, run faster’,” he said.

Instead, Laschet placed more emphasis on the need to speed up planning procedures and cut red tape to enable big energy projects to proceed more quickly. Scholz said Germany needed to set more ambitious targets to expand renewables and the electricity network.

Baerbock, who is making the Greens’ first run for the chancellery, countered that the other parties were being disingenuous. “They don’t want to ban anything because that maybe doesn’t come across well in an election campaign,” she said. “For me, that honestly sounds alarming.”

The three also disagreed strongly on tax policy, with Scholz calling for a higher rate of income tax on high-earners and Laschet, who is the prime minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, ruling out tax increases. It would, he said, be “downright foolish” to raise taxes just as the economy was returning to growth.

Yet on most issues the level of consensus was such that voters might have struggled to discern any differences. All three agreed that Germany should take on greater responsibility in the world, especially in the light of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and ensure the Bundeswehr — the German military — and the police are adequately equipped.

They agreed on the need for measures to reduce child poverty and to smooth the economic differences that still exist between east and west Germany 30 years after reunification.

The most tense moment came when the three were asked their view of the possible coalitions that might emerge after the election and in particular the prospect of a leftwing, “red-red-green” government made up of the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke, a hard-left party.

Laschet confronted Scholz on the issue, challenging him to rule out a coalition with Die Linke, which opposes Nato and voted against the recent Bundeswehr deployment to rescue thousands of local staff from Afghanistan.

Scholz said he would not form an alliance with any party that was not clearly committed to Nato. “Are you serious, Mr Scholz?” Laschet countered. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for you to say you won’t form a coalition with this party.

“The voters want to know whether you would let yourself be elected chancellor with the votes of Die Linke and whether you would appoint Linke ministers to your cabinet, yes or no?” Scholz said it was a matter of “clear principles” and “obviously those that don’t adhere to these principles have a problem”. But he added: “it’s the voters who decide who will be the next chancellor”.

In her closing statement, Baerbock said Germany faced a choice between two directions — “the business-as-usual” of the SPD and CDU, and “a real fresh state, a politics that really makes the future better”.

Scholz said he would ensure “respect” in society, with better pay, a higher minimum wage and stable pensions, and more of an emphasis on fighting climate change.

Laschet said that, with the winds of change blowing hard, Germans needed “steadfastness, reliability and an internal compass”. “And that is my offer — and the offer of the CDU,” he added. “Stability and reliability in difficult times.”

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