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Car industry fires up German election

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With six weeks to go until a general election, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main rival are taking aim at Germany’s scandal-hit car bosses, in a race to reassure voters they won’t have to pay for the sector’s mistakes.
But observers say Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger Martin Schulz will have to tread a fine line between defending diesel owners and bashing a crucial industry that employs 800,000 people and is the backbone of the German economy.
“The ‘big bad industry that has to change’ will be a constant refrain throughout the campaign,” said Nils Diederich, professor of political science at Berlin’s Free University.
“But we will see that all parties will approach the topic very cautiously,” he said. “Not even the Greens are calling for diesels to be taken off the road right away.”
Merkel, criticised for staying silent in July when the dieselgate scandal widened on allegations of decades-long collusion between automakers, used her first campaign event to slam car executives. “Large parts of the automobile industry have gambled away incredible trust,” she said on Saturday.
Her main rival, Schulz, used his own media blitz on Sunday to call out the “irresponsible” managers who had failed to make the necessary investments in the cleaner cars of the future. “Diesel drivers in Germany should not have to foot the bill for their irresponsibility,” the former European Parliament president said.
He called for an EU-wide quota to push electric cars, a proposal dismissed by Merkel as too complicated to implement. Commentators said the attacks on the car industry carried a whiff of hypocrisy given both parties’ notoriously cosy links with Germany’s auto giants over the years.
Merkel was dubbed the “car chancellor” in 2013 after she went to bat for the sector and argued against an EU cap on emissions. Shortly after, German media reported that Merkel’s conservative CDU party had received nearly 700,000 euros ($825,000) in donations from the Quandt family, the largest shareholder in luxury carmaker BMW.
Schulz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has also faced accusations of doing the sector’s bidding. In the state of Lower Saxony, which holds a 20-percent stake in Volkswagen and two seats on its board, recent revelations that SPD premier Stephan Weil allowed VW to vet his comments on dieselgate sparked outrage.
“There will always be close ties with such a key sector,” said Brzeski. But he predicted that politicians would have to “take on a more guiding role” in their dealings with the sector in future.
Ahead of the September 24 vote, the latest Emnid poll put support for Merkel’s conservative block at 38 percent, followed by the SPD at 24 percent. In Germany’s coalition system that means the smaller parties could end up being kingmaker, and help steer the next government’s dieselgate response.
The pro-business FDP has already rejected Schulz’s quota proposal, while the Greens have welcomed it.

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