When Germany elects a new government on 26 September the average voter age may be over 50, but a week and a half before polling day it is children who are asking the hard questions of the candidates who want to fill Angela Merkel’s shoes.
Armin Laschet, of the outgoing chancellor’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Olaf Scholz, of the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), were both left shifting in their seats in what has been hailed as their toughest grilling of the campaign trail – at the hands of two 11-year-olds.
For the interviews, which were screened as part of the Late Night Berlin comedy programme by the private broadcaster ProSieben on Tuesday night, the two frontrunners faced a rollercoaster of high and low questions in the innocuous setting of a bunting-adorned yurt.
Questions such as “What would you be called if you were a dragon?” and “Do you sometimes build a cave when you want to be alone?” were interspersed with hard-hitting probes of the candidates’ positions on Russian foreign policy, civil protest and dealing with radical delegates in their own ranks.
Laschet, whose party’s fortunes have declined dramatically since he was filmed giggling in the background while Germany’s president gave a solemn address to victims of this summer’s devastating floods, was asked by one of the children, Romeo, why he had laughed.
“Because someone made a stupid comment,” Laschet said. “That was stupid.”
“Can one become chancellor if you don’t know how to behave?”, Romeo’s co-interviewer Pauline probed further. “No,” Laschet responded with an air of impatience. “But I know how to behave.”
The children also put Laschet through the ringer over his stance on Hans-Georg Maaßen, a former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency who has restyled himself as a rightwing agitator on social media and is now running for the CDU in Thuringia. Laschet, while insisting that he disagrees with Maaßen on several issues, has declined to publicly condemn him, saying it is up to his constituency to cast a verdict.
“Is Maaßen a rightwinger?” Romeo asked. “Do you know him?” Laschet shot back. “Yes,” Romeo replied.
“And why is he a rightwinger?” Laschet returned the question. “I am asking you that,” Romeo insisted calmly.
“If someone says he is a Nazi, that is unfair,” Laschet prevaricated after a pause. “Nazis aren’t allowed to be in the party,” he added, and he tried to usher the children along to the next question.
Laschet was also quizzed about his cigarillo-smoking habit, which Romeo said was “very unhealthy”. “Yes, that’s true”, Laschet replied, pursing his lips. “But so many things are unhealthy. I don’t inhale.”
Laschet’s performance is unlikely to improve his chances in the national vote on 26 September, with the latest polls putting the CDU five to six percentage points behind Scholz’s Social Democrats.
But Scholz did not cover himself in glory either, struggling to answer the children’s casual questions while addressing an adult viewership.
Asked why people called him “Scholzomat”, Scholz said this used to be his nickname because he always gave the same answers. “That was maybe necessary, but not so smart.”
Romeo then asked him whether Vladimir Putin was a murderer. “Putin is someone who is responsible for the fact that a lot of people in Russia have their lives threatened,” said Scholz, diplomatically. “Are you talking Scholzomat again?” asked Romeo.
Romeo and Pauline’s interview with the Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, is due to be screened next week.
Rightwing media have criticised the show – whose host, Klaas Heufer-Umlauf, has previously backed the SPD – for using children to ask grownup questions. The show’s producers conceded that the two interviewers wore ear sets during the interview.
“To conduct an exciting interview, Pauline and Romeo have to prepare themselves in the same way established journalists have to,” said a ProSieben spokesperson. “They both receive editorial support in that task.”
Other child interviewers in this election campaign have managed to expose politicians without cues. In an interview for the kids’ news programme oLogo!, young Alexander asked Tino Chrupalla, a co-chair of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, about what he had meant when he said his party wanted more “German cultural properties” to be taught at German schools.
When Chrupalla said he wanted more schoolchildren to learn German folk songs and poems, Alexander said: “I think we already have to learn a lot of poems off by heart,” and he asked the AfD politician what his favourite poem was.
“My favourite poem is, erm, I’d have to have a think about that, I am struggling to think of one right now,” Chrupalla said.
Alexander later told German media he hadn’t tried to lay a trap with his question. “I genuinely didn’t expect that he couldn’t answer that,” he said.