German candidates clash in last televised debate ahead of vote as SPD lead narrows

General election candidates Alice Weidel, AfD, Christian Lindner, FDP, Markus Soeder, CSU, Armin Laschet, CDU, Annalena Baerbock, Greens, Olaf Scholz, SPD, and Janine Wissler, Die Linke, attend a final televised debate before the elections in Berlin, Germany on September 23, 2021. Tobias Schwarz / via REUTERS

BERLIN, Sept. 23 (Reuters) – Candidates vying to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor clash over tax, debt and foreign policy on Thursday in a final televised debate as opinion polls showed that the race was hardening three days before the federal election.

An FGW poll for ZDF Television showed support for the conservative CDU / CSU alliance, whose chancellor candidate is Armin Laschet, up one percentage point to 23%.

The Social Democrats are clinging to their lead, but only barely. The FGW poll places the center-left party, whose candidate is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, unchanged at 25%.

The Greens, likely to play a role in government, are up half a point to 16.5% and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) are stable at 11%.

Merkel, in power since 2005, plans to step down as head of Europe’s largest economy after Sunday’s elections, although she will remain chancellor during coalition talks.

During the 90-minute debate, in which some sparks erupted between leading representatives from the seven main parties, Laschet vowed not to raise taxes and to adhere to strict budget rules that were relaxed to help the recovery after the coronavirus crisis.

“I don’t want tax increases, I want to keep the budgetary rules,” said Laschet, broadly in agreement with Christian Lindner of the FDP.

“We have a high deficit, we are very heavily indebted in Europe, we have high inflation rates,” Lindner said, adding that he would prefer to cut subsidies, for example for electric cars.

Scholz stressed the need to invest while Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock said fiscal rules could be relaxed to spend enough, especially on the environment.

The fundamental differences, also in areas of foreign policy such as China, which have emerged during the debate highlight the looming difficulties in forming a coalition. Read more

The contestants have been quiet about their favorite partners and have refused to rule out much.

Lindner said there was the greatest political overlap between his party and the Conservatives. Experts say that a possible rapprochement of the Tories, FDP and Greens, which could work in arithmetic terms, would require major compromises, especially on the part of smaller parties.

Scholz, reiterated that he would not accept some of the far-left Linke’s more radical policies, such as withdrawing from NATO, if he were to form a left alliance.

“There are concrete conditions,” said Scholz. “We need cooperation within NATO. We need a good relationship with the United States.”

Reporting by Madeline Chambers Editing by Alistair Bell

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