BERLIN – Four days before Chancellor Angela Merkel and her key rival Martin Schulz go head-to-head in a long-awaited TV debate, candidates from Germany’s smaller parties went to the mat for their own tussle Wednesday night.
In a two-hour program broadcast on the Sat 1 channel, contenders from the four parties expected to enter the German parliament in the September 24 election discussed migration, terrorism and security.
With the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the left-leaning Greens, far-left Die Linke and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) polling neck-and-neck in the 7-10 percent range, the battle for bronze is on — and its outcome could decide which coalition will soon govern Europe’s largest economy.
Here are the key moments for each candidate.
Christian Lindner, FDP
The 38-year-old liberal left no doubt his party wants to be part of a German government again.
Four years ago in the last election, the FDP suffered a humiliating defeat, ending up without any seats for the first time since 1949. The party will most likely return to the Bundestag this year, and it’s on the list of potential coalition partners for both Merkel’s conservatives and Schulz’s SPD.
In the debate, Lindner underlined the business-friendly core of his party and demanded a tough course in dealing with the influx of refugees to Europe.
Key moment: “Many respond to the issues of refugees, understandably, with their heart,” Lindner said. “Others respond to it with their gut and with anger — but we need to use our heads.”
Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Greens
With support dwindling to 7 percent in pre-election polls, Germany’s Greens are struggling perhaps more than any other party to distinguish themselves from the rest of the political spectrum.
Göring-Eckardt, a 51-year-old lifelong politician, stressed the role of her party as an advocate for multiculturalism and pushed for reforms to Germany’s retirement pension system to fight old-age poverty. She also indirectly doubled-down on an announcement from earlier this summer that she was willing to go into a national coalition with Merkel’s conservatives — considered a taboo until very recently.
Key moment: ”That would be exhausting, and so on,” Göring-Eckardt said when the moderator asked her to say “something crazy” and the FDP’s Lindner shouted from across the studio that she should address a possible coalition with Merkel’s conservatives. “But crazy is something different,” she said.
Katja Kipping, Die Linke
Instead of Sahra Wagenknecht — its most controversial and prominent face — the far-left Die Linke sent party chief Katja Kipping, a 39-year-old moderate, into the ring.
Repeatedly getting into a muddle while making her arguments, Kipping went after Germany’s foreign policy and rising income inequality, two of her party’s favorite topics.
Key moment: “We need higher taxes on the profits of large companies and for millionaires in general,” Kipping said when asked whether her party planned to finance wide-ranging social reforms.
Alice Weidel, Alternative for Germany
Weidel, a 38-year-old management consultant and one of two top candidates for the AfD, presented a softer side in the debate.
When the FDP’s Lindner was repeatedly mocked for his party’s black-and-white campaign posters featuring him, Weidel said, unusually mildly, that she found it “a bit mean that he is being picked upon only because of those posters.”
Later, when confronted with a survey in which 88 percent of respondents said they would not want her as their neighbor, Weidel said it was “tough” to hear she had such an image, adding: “I need to work on myself when it comes to that.”
Don’t expect her to get soft on refugees, though.
Key moment: “We have an eroding security situation in Germany … which is a direct effect of uncontrolled immigration,” Weidel said when asked about Germany’s migration policy. “We need to suspend Schengen.”