Merkel's Election Rivals Roll Out the Big Guns to Narrow Gap

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel’s main rivals for the Chancellery stepped up their criticism of her handling of Germany’s domestic and international agenda, slamming her for failing to address the diesel scandal rocking the auto industry and accusing her of kowtowing to President Donald Trump.

Six weeks before federal elections that will determine whether Merkel wins a fourth term, Social Democratic Party grandees went on the attack in a bid to help her SPD challenger, Martin Schulz, reel in a poll lead for Merkel’s bloc of as much as 17 percentage points.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a former Social Democratic Party leader, said that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc is intent on channeling funds into defense spending at the expense of social programs. That’s a “signal to Trump that they will yield to his pressure,” Gabriel said in a interview with newspapers of RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland published Monday.

Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who clawed back a lead of more than 20 points at a similar stage of the 2005 campaign only to lose to Merkel by a single percentage point, took aim at her crisis management of the diesel scandal in a weekend interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick.

“I don’t want to spoil anyone’s vacation,” Schroeder was cited as saying in Blick’s Sunday edition, a reference to Merkel’s near-three-week absence when the scandal erupted. “But I would have personally taken charge. It’s just too important.”

Campaign Shift

The rolling out of the SPD’s big guns to pound Merkel suggests a new tack to gain purchase going into the Sept. 24 election. Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament who only took over the SPD leadership in January, has addressed similar themes while noticeably declining to attack the chancellor. That gentlemanly approach may now be changing as the campaign heats up after the summer break.

“The closed season for Mrs Merkel is over,” Thomas Oppermann, the SPD’s caucus leader in the Bundestag, told Tagesspiegel newspaper’s Sunday edition. In the run-up to the election, he said, his party will “confront Merkel each day with the challenges and problems our country faces, as well as with the opportunities that she’s let pass by.”

Merkel’s bloc maintained its lead with 38 percent support in a weekly Emnid survey published by Bild am Sonntag newspaper, while the SPD -- her coalition partner of the past four years -- climbed one point to 24 percent. The Greens and Free Democrats, both potential coalition partners for either main party, had 7 percent and 8 percent respectively, while the anti-capitalist Left had 10 percent. The anti-immigration AfD had 8 percent.

Coalition Speculation

Elmar Brok, a Merkel ally who’s a Christian Democratic member of the European Parliament, said the “grand coalition” of Germany’s two main parties had run its course and the chancellor should reach out to the Greens and Free Democrats if she wins re-election.

“The majority of Germans don’t want to have the grand coalition again,” Brok said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “It’s not good for democracy if the two big parties lead together. Therefore I would prefer to have a coalition of the Christian Democrats together with the Greens, or the Liberals, or both together.”

In separate weekend campaign appearances, Merkel and Schulz dressed down auto industry managers, saying that they jeopardized the backbone of Germany’s export economy.

As potential political damage looms over the diesel cheating scandal amid accusations of collusion between government and industry, Merkel and Schulz placed the blame on executives of auto titans such as Volkswagen AG and Daimler AG. At a political rally in Dortmund on Saturday, the chancellor said decision-makers had swept violations “under the carpet,” while Schulz took a swipe at “irresponsible managers.”

“We have a situation in which managers who make millions, at VW, at Daimler, have slept through the future,” Schulz told broadcaster ZDF on Sunday. “Because of the cost savings on their balance sheets, they failed to invest in the areas where they should have.”

Diesel Scandal

Merkel's Election Rivals Roll Out the Big Guns to Narrow Gap

The politicians struck a sharper tone as they entered the hot phase of electioneering. Schulz insisted that with German voters beginning to pay attention in the final weeks, he shouldn’t be ruled out as a potential chancellor.

“I think I have a good chance to lead the next government,” Schulz told ZDF. “We still have six weeks left.”

Merkel, 63, back in the public eye after a break during which the diesel scandal dominated headlines, made her first of a scheduled 50 campaign rallies in the western city of Dortmund. She sounded a pro-labor message in a bastion of Social Democratic politics.

“There’s a lot that still needs to be cleared up,” Merkel said, responding to a drumbeat of negative news about diesel pollution and corporate misconduct. “When I say industry, I’m thinking first of all of the corporate leadership.”

BI Economics report on Germany: Economy Running Hot, Politics Cooling Off

While Merkel made her selling point as a bastion of stability in a world upended by global crises, Schulz, 61, took advantage of his outsider status to blast away at President Trump.
At the same time, Schulz stressed he wouldn’t criticize Merkel’s approach to a possible nuclear conflict over North Korea, saying German political parties should stand together.

“I certainly won’t exploit a crisis that this completely irresponsible man in the White House has produced, both in the U.S. -- take a look at these Nazi demonstrations -- as well on the international level,” Schulz told broadcaster ZDF on Sunday.