Merkel emphasizes German prosperity, security at rally

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the final phase of her election campaign Saturday with a focus on her record, emphasizing the economic growth and prosperity achieved during her dozen years at the helm as she seeks a fourth term.

Merkel told a rally organized by her Christian Democratic Union party in the western city of Dortmund that unemployment has dropped to a post-reunification low since she first was elected chancellor in 2005.

She told the crowd she hoped to achieve full employment — a rate below 3 percent — by 2025. The rate hit as high as 12.6 percent in early 2005 and was most recently at 5.6 percent in July.

"Those are really excellent figures," Merkel said, going on to note that government and industry must not be complacent because technology is changing the way the economy functions.

"On one hand, Germany stacks up well, but on the other hand we live in a time of change, a time of uncertainty," she said.

Singling out the damage done to the "Made in Germany" label with Volkswagen's diesel cheating scandal, Merkel said honesty in business was a prerequisite going forward.

"The way things were swept under the rug or where loopholes in emissions tests were massively exploited to the point they were unrecognizable, that destroys trust," she told the crowd.

In addition to Volkswagen, Germany is home to Mercedes, BMW and other top brands.

Merkel emphasized the need for the auto industry to develop cleaner technologies, but also sought to allay widespread fears that older diesel cars could be banned from the streets. A "transition phase" would be better than a ban, she said.

The government could help provide the infrastructure to support vehicles run by alternative power sources, but innovation was up to the automakers, she said.

"The question of whether the German automobile industry has recognized these signs of the times will decide their future, and with it hundreds of thousands of jobs," she said.

Merkel, however, rejected outright an idea floated by her main challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who suggested in an interview Friday that there should be a Europe-wide quota instituted for electric cars.

Merkel said such a quota could harm the development of other alternative technologies and she didn't think the idea "has been thought through."

A defining moment of Merkel's tenure as chancellor was the decision in 2015 to open Germany's doors to 890,000 migrants seeking asylum and economic opportunities. She pledged Friday not to avoid immigration as a topic on the campaign trail, but did not mention the controversial issue in her Dortmund speech.

Merkel's conservative bloc currently enjoys a lead of more than 15 percent over its main competition, the Social Democrats, leading up to the Sept. 24 election. Most polls put support for Merkel's bloc at about 40 percent compared to about 23 percent for the SPD.

The two parties currently govern together in a so-called "grand coalition." The SPD's slumping popularity figures and recent gains by Merkel's bloc, which also includes the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, have led many to speculate that she might be able to form a new coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats or another smaller party.

Merkel urged members of her party to keep up the pressure over the next six weeks.

"We need to advocate, we need to fight and we need to stand up for our ideas," she said.

Campaign posters for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union have highlighted the country's economic prosperity, with slogans such as "For a Germany in which we live well and happily," and "For good work and good pay." Other themes include "More respect for families," and "Security and order."

At Saturday's rally, Merkel cited another campaign slogan: "Strengthening Europe means strengthening Germany."

"For us, the greatest security and the greatest peace project is the European Union," she told the cheering crowd.

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