Scholz sprint shakes up race to succeed Germany's Merkel

  • Poll puts SPD ahead of conservatives for first time in 15 years
  • SPD chancellor candidate Scholz gains from rivals' errors
  • Scholz pitches himself as natural successor to Merkel
  • Conservative candidate Laschet dogged by gaffe, infighting

BERLIN, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Germany's Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz looks increasingly likely to lead a left-leaning government after Germany's national election next month, positioning himself as a natural successor to longtime chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Scholz has led his party from third place a month ago to leader in one poll out on Tuesday, a remarkable turnaround for both his party and its rival conservatives, who risk losing power after four consecutive election victories under Merkel.

The Social Democratic Party's (SPD) push past the conservative CDU/CSU bloc is the first time the party has led in a Forsa poll since 2006. Scholz is also the most popular of the chancellor candidates.

The conservatives have suffered since their chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, was seen laughing on a visit to a flood-stricken town in July - a gaffe that exacerbated party infighting and stoked lingering rivalries.

Some in the conservative CDU/CSU bloc are starting to worry.

"It is really difficult to predict the outcome of the election this time," said CDU lawmaker Mathias Middelberg.

As finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel's awkward 'grand coalition' of the conservatives and SPD, Scholz shares the chancellor's reasoned approach and exchanges text messages with her most days.

He grew up in Hamburg, where Merkel was born, and is consciously aping her style.

Last Friday, he appeared in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung with his hands resting in the 'Merkel rhombus', her trademark pose with thumbs and fingers lightly bracing together that is and a symbol of her calm leadership.

As chancellor, Scholz could take steps towards a fiscal union in Europe, where senior SPD officials say Merkel has been too hesitant. The conservatives reject what they call a "debt union", referring to common debt issuance by European states.

But he also stands for solid finances - he wants to rein in debt spending after the pandemic - and a commitment to NATO, which implicitly rules out a so-called red-red-green alliance with the ecologists and the hard-left Linke, who believe the Western military alliance should be dissolved.


On the defensive, the conservatives have resorted to trying to poach voters from the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) by warning their supporters that they risk voting for an alternative left-wing coalition with the SPD and Greens.

"Those who vote FDP have to accept that they will end up waking up with Esken and Kuehnert at the cabinet table," CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak tweeted on Friday, with reference to two left-wing SPD members.

Not everyone is listening. In video published on Saturday that has been viewed 2 million times, Youtuber Rezo accused Laschet of "incompetence" and being "blatantly inauthentic".

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at consultancy Eurasia Group, said Scholz "isn't exactly setting the campaign on fire."

"Rather, his rise is explained by the fact his chief rivals - Laschet and the Greens - have weak candidates and are making all the mistakes," he added.

Some conservatives have criticised Merkel, who plans to step down after the election, for polishing her legacy with a series of trips abroad rather than championing Laschet.

"But it is also clear: Armin has to show that he can do it on his own," a close Laschet confidante said.

Laschet allies point out that he came from behind in polls to win the premiership of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, in 2017. They also believe he will do well in televised debates with Scholz and the Greens' candidate, Annalena Baerbock, later this month and next.

Baerbock too has been knocked off course after a promising start, hurt by an unreported party bonus and inaccurate details in her curriculum vitae. Her party says media have not scrutinised her male rivals as vigorously and has criticised their questions about juggling motherhood and leadership.

The conservatives last Friday dismissed suggestions they should drop Laschet and replace him with Markus Soeder, who leads the CSU, Bavarian sister party to Merkel and Laschet's Christian Democrats (CDU), and who had been sniping at Laschet.

"The CSU leader's constant needling will likely cost us 1 to 2 percent of the vote," said one CDU executive committee member.

Gaffes by his opponents have boosted Scholz's campaign, Carsten Nickel at Teneo, a political risk consultancy said.

"But at least as important is his ability to offer a credible alternative: a sense of utterly pragmatic reliability."

Additional reporting by Christian Kraemer; editing by Phlippa Fletcher

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