German Auto Industry Front and Center in Country’s Elections

German Auto Industry Front and Center in Country's Upcoming Elections

Martin Schulz, the main challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s September election, has accused the country’s car industry executives of putting the sector at risk by failing to plan for the future.

The future of the automotive sector, Germany’s biggest exporter and provider of about 800,000 jobs, has become a hot election issue as politicians blame executives and each other for the industry’s battered reputation following the emissions scandal.

Schulz, leader of the left-leaning Social Democratic party (SPD), took aim at what he described as “irresponsible managers” in the sector. “The problem is, we are living through a situation in Germany in which managers worth millions at VW [Volkswagen], at Daimler, have fallen asleep and forgotten the future,” he told broadcaster ZDF.

The crisis in the sector blew up when Volkswagen admitted to cheating US emissions tests almost two years ago. VW, along with German manufacturers BMW, Daimler, Audi and Porsche, are also being investigated by European regulators for alleged anti-competitive collusion.

Seeking to restore the industry’s reputation, politicians – though not Merkel herself – and car bosses agreed earlier this month to overhaul engine software on 5.3m diesel cars to cut pollution.

The former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, himself a former member of VW’s supervisory board, accused Merkel of neglecting her duties by going on holiday rather than chairing the talks with industry bosses on diesel emissions. “I don’t want to spoil anyone’s holiday. But here I would have taken charge personally. It is all far too important,” Schröder, a Social Democrat who Merkel defeated in 2005, told Swiss tabloid newspaper Blick.

On Saturday, Merkel kicked off her re-election campaign with a stinging attack on German car chiefs, pressing them to innovate better to secure jobs, and win back trust lost thanks to the diesel emissions scandal.

Merkel, whose government has faced pressure for being too close to powerful carmakers, and Schulz are both concerned that the industry is being too slow to embrace electric cars.

An Emnid opinion poll for Sunday’s Bild am Sonntag weekly newspaper showed support for Merkel’s conservative bloc at 38%, unchanged from a week earlier, with the SPD gaining one point to 24%.

The two parties rule in a “grand coalition”. Although Merkel’s conservatives command a comfortable lead over their rivals, a fractured political landscape could make forming a power-sharing alliance with a smaller party difficult after the election.