DORTMUND, Germany (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel kicked off her re-election campaign on Saturday with a stinging attack on German auto executives, pressing them to innovate to secure jobs, and win back trust lost by a diesel emissions scandal.
Merkel is far ahead of her rivals in opinion polls but, wary of complacency setting in among her supporters, she plans 50 rallies in towns and cities across Germany in the run-up to the Sept. 24 election, when she will seek a fourth term in office.
With her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) campaigning on a platform of economic stability, Merkel ripped into auto industry executives for destroying trust in the sector – Germany’s biggest exporter and provider of some 800,000 jobs.
“Large sections of the auto industry have gambled away unbelievable amounts of trust,” she told a rally in Dortmund, in the heart of the Ruhr area that was at the center of Germany’s post-war ‘economic miracle’ but which is now a rust-belt.
“This is trust that only the auto industry can restore. And when I say ‘the industry’ that is the company leaders,” she added, to loud applause, pressing executives to behave honestly.
By turning on auto industry executives, Merkel is trying to both push the sector to innovate and to head off a drive for more social justice in Germany from her main challenger, Martin Schulz of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Germany has enjoyed solid growth since Merkel took office in November 2005, and unemployment has fallen to record lows. Yet many people earn low wages and feel left behind in a globalized economy that has seen the gap grow between rich and poor.
That sense of injustice and economic angst has been fueled by Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) admitting almost two years ago to cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests, a confession that plunged Germany’s auto sector into crisis.
Earlier this month, German politicians and car bosses agreed to overhaul engine software on 5.3 million diesel cars to cut pollution and try to repair the industry’s battered reputation.
But many politicians fear Germany’s carmakers are failing to invest enough in new technology and infrastructure.
Merkel rejected a proposal made by Schulz to introduce quotas…