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Germany's Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz arrives to attend a meeting with members of the Italian Coast Guard in Catania, Italy July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello(reuters_tickers)
By Gernot Heller
BERLIN (Reuters) - Martin Schulz, the main challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's Sept. 24 election, accused the country's auto executives on Sunday of putting the industry at risk by failing to plan for the future.
The future of the auto sector, Germany's biggest exporter and provider of some 800,000 jobs, has become a hot election issue as politicians pile blame on executives and each other for the sector's battered reputation after an 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, at Daimler, have fallen asleep and forgotten the future," he told broadcaster ZDF.
The crisis in the sector blew up when Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE> admitted to cheating U.S. 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 5.3 million diesel cars to cut pollution.
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, 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," Schroeder, 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 auto executives, pressing them to innovate to secure jobs, and win back trust lost by a diesel emissions scandal.
Merkel, whose government has faced pressure for being too close to powerful carmakers, and Schulz are both concerned that the sector is being too slow to embrace electric cars. Neither appears to have profited much from the auto debate so far.
An Emnid opinion poll for Sunday's Bild am Sonntag weekly newspaper showed support for Merkel's conservative bloc at 38 percent, unchanged from a week earlier, with the SPD gaining one point to 24 percent.
The two parties rule in a "grand coalition". Although Merkel's conservatives command a comfortable lead over rivals, a fractured political landscape could make forming a power-sharing alliance with a smaller party difficult after the election.
The Emnid poll put support for the far-left Left party at 10 points, with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) both on 8 points, and the environmentalist Greens on 7 points.
(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams)