German parties make final push in tight contest to succeed Merkel

COLOGNE/MUNICH — Germany’s two main parties tried Friday to rally their supporters and woo undecided voters in an election race that’s too close to call less than 48 hours before polling day.

Final polls have shown the race to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor tightening in the last few days. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have a narrow lead over the conservative CDU/CSU camp — but that advantage is within the margin of error, making the contest a virtual dead heat.

GERMANY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

At a rally in the Rhineside city of Cologne, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wrapped up his campaign by sticking to the strategy that’s gotten him within touching distance of victory — copying Merkel.

Although the two hail from rival camps, Scholz serves as Merkel’s vice chancellor and finance minister in the outgoing coalition government and has portrayed himself as her natural successor. He has taken an above-the-fray approach reminiscent of the chancellor, who is stepping down after Sunday’s general election following 16 years in power.

In Cologne, Scholz largely refrained from direct attacks on his main rival, Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor.

“My impression is that many citizens want a change. I sense that. But this change will only succeed if the course is set for it on Sunday,” Scholz told a crowd of more than 1,000 people on the Heumarkt, a large square in Cologne city center. “I’m very touched that many citizens want me to be the next chancellor.”

Merkel, meanwhile, sought to generate momentum for the CDU/CSU at a rally in Munich, as part of a final charge the conservative camp hopes will allow it to snatch victory.

In the city’s Nockherberg beer hall, with a Lederhosen-heavy crowd in attendance, Merkel dismissed suggestions there was not much difference between the two main parties. “It does matter who governs,” she declared, mounting a staunch defense of her own legacy and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), now led by Laschet.

She made clear she saw a big difference between the economic policies of the CDU/CSU and those of their rivals, such as the SPD.

“In this election campaign, there has been a lot of talk about distributing and very little about earning,” Merkel said, declaring that “generate first, then distribute fairly” was her maxim.

Back in Cologne, Scholz focused much of his speech on social policy, stressing campaign pledges to raise the minimum wage, build more affordable housing and increase educational opportunities.

Scholz also talked about climate change, saying it was important “to now set the course” for a transition to a climate-neutral economy.

Polls show that it will probably take three parties to form a majority government after the election and Scholz, a 63-year-old former mayor of Hamburg, has made clear he wants the Greens to be one of his partners.

Merkel’s message

At the conservatives’ Munich rally, Merkel appeared alongside Laschet and Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

The chancellor stressed her party’s European and defense policies — and contrasted them with those of their opponents.

Some parties want “to introduce a European debt union,” she said. “We have to tell them: That’s not our policy.”

Merkel also warned against questioning the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, as some Social Democrats and Greens — as well as the Left party — have done.

“Who will still cooperate with us in a trusting way if we don’t stick to the 2 percent target?” asked Merkel, who will also stump for Laschet at a final event in his home city of Aachen on Saturday.

The conservative camp sought to put on a show of unity at the Munich event, despite tensions between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party that flared over whether Laschet or Söder should be their joint candidate for chancellor.

Söder claimed a CSU party congress earlier this month had helped turn the election campaign in the conservatives’ favor and predicted Laschet would be Merkel’s successor.

“Since the party conference, a jolt has gone through the country,” he said. “We are fighting and — once again, for the record — Armin Laschet will be the next chancellor.”

Hans von der Burchard reported from Cologne and Florian Eder reported from Munich.

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