After 12 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t often make a slip of the tongue. But in the German parliament’s last plenary debate before elections later this month, Ms. Merkel drew laughter near the end of her speech when she said, “My time is almost over.”
She meant of course her speaking time in the debate, but the session had been so spirited that opposition deputies had a good laugh that she could have been referring her time as chancellor.
The debate in the lower house, the Bundestag, was so lively that it overshadowed the weekend’s rather dull television duel between Ms. Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, demonstrating once again that an American-style TV faceoff is not the most appropriate form of debate in a parliamentary democracy. Instead, it resembled the far more spirited discussion of the smaller opposition parties held Monday night.
“We don’t want to end up in a technical museum with Germany.”
But it wasn’t just the small parties’ inclusion that made Tuesday a spirited debate. For once, coalitions didn’t matter. Over the past four years Germany has been governed by a so-called “grand coalition” of Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, the country’s two largest parties. That might make for good governing, but it means the two parties have presented a united front on most issues.
On Tuesday, Social Democratic leaders clearly enjoyed the opportunity to act as opposition spokesmen, even though they are still technically part of the government. The smaller party chiefs, such as Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party and Green Party leader Cem Özdemir, have long battled the grand coalition alliance. With Social Democrats going on the offensive, that for once made for some political fireworks.
Ms. Merkel celebrated the record of the outgoing government that she led, while acknowledging some of the challenges Germany faces. A major problem is the lag in digitalization, a huge topic here but one where particularly small- and medium sized firms have been slower than other industrialized countries to move their processes online. The chancellor said the country needs to make a greater effort. “We don’t want to end up in a technical museum with Germany,” she said.
At the same time, however, she defended the German auto industry’s commitment to diesel, even as the emissions-cheating scandal has shown them to be far more polluting than advertised. While urging development of new types of engines, she argued that the industry would rely on combustion engines for years and decades to come. She pledged that any government under her leadership would “use all our power” to prevent cities from imposing diesel bans – something a number of German cities including Daimler’s home base of Stuttgart are actively considering. Ms. Merkel has taken heat over the emissions-cheating scandal, with critics dubbing her the “auto chancellor.”
As she had done throughout the campaign, Ms. Merkel portrayed herself as a guarantee for stability in an increasingly unstable world. In the North Korea crisis, she pushed for a “peaceful, diplomatic solution” backed up perhaps by further sanctions from the European Union. Turkey remains a sore point after recent new arrests of German citizens. Ms. Merkel hinted already in Sunday’s television debate that EU leaders could suspend or break off negotiations with Turkey about joining the bloc.
However, Ms. Wagenknecht, leader of the Left Party, turned that argument against the chancellor. Whereas French President Emmanuel Macron swept to power on his new “République en marche” (Republic on the move), she said, Ms. Merkel was leading a “République en trance.” Amid all the serious problems at home and abroad, the chancellor has waged a “fair-weather, feel-good campaign” that was “outrageous.”
As their coalition with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats nears its end, the Social Democrats were at pains to distance themselves from the chancellor. When Ms. Merkel enumerated some of the government’s accomplishments, Social Democratic general secretary Hubertus Heil heckled her repeatedly that those policies had been pushed by his party, sometimes against her will. Finally Ms. Merkel snapped back, “Against my will and the will of the Christian Democratic caucus, you could get nothing through this parliament.”
Former party leader Sigmar Gabriel, vice chancellor in the coalition government, showed his expertise in parliamentary debate with sharp attacks against the chancellor, especially her plans to increase military spending, which she has promised in part because of demands from the United States for higher spending by NATO members.
The country has been a force for peace, he argued. “Germany can’t now be sending out the signal that we’re going along with an arms race,” Mr. Gabriel said. He noted that it was the former Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt who introduced the policy of détente at the end of the 1960s. “The current times are similarly dangerous,” he said. “We need more, not less, détente.”
His skilled performance might have left Social Democrats wondering whether they would have been better off keeping Mr. Gabriel as party leader and chancellor-candidate. He stepped down in January to hand over those tasks to Mr. Schulz, former president of the European Parliament. The latter enjoyed perhaps the briefest honeymoon ever in German politics as approval for the Social Democrats fleetingly spiked in the polls with a new face, only to quickly fall back below 25 percent. In other words, despite Tuesday’s fireworks, Ms. Merkel’s quest for a fourth term in office still looks very much intact.
Martin Greive is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based editor, adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global.