German chancellor candidates face off in 1st election debate

BERLIN (AP) — The three candidates to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s election meet Sunday evening in a televised debate, with polls showing their parties close together and suggesting that many voters are unimpressed with the choices.

Sunday’s debate on RTL and n-tv private television is the first of three ahead of the parliamentary election on Sept. 26. The contenders are Armin Laschet for Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, Olaf Scholz for the center-left Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock for the environmentalist Greens.

Laschet is the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Scholz is the vice chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s outgoing coalition government. Baerbock, who lacks government experience, is making the Greens’ first run for the chancellery.

Recent polls show no party forecast to receive more than a quarter of the vote, a particularly disappointing situation for the Union after Merkel’s 16 years in government. The Union and Social Democrats are neck-and-neck in most surveys, closely followed by the Greens.

The campaign so far has seen missteps by both Laschet and Baerbock, helping give some momentum to Scholz. He has seen his personal ratings rise and his party’s long-moribund support increase.

Germany has had televised candidates between the candidates for chancellor since 2002. In recent campaigns, there was only one debate between Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger of the day. This time, another two follow on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19.

Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth four-year term. She has largely stayed out of this campaign, saying at a rare rally appearance a week ago that “predecessors who are ending their political work should hold back.”