Olaf Scholz takes over as Germany’s fourth chancellor from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). He will head a coalition of three parties and will have the difficult task of reconciling their different positions to lead the country at a challenging time.
“Dare more progress” is the title of the coalition contract.The fight against the COVID pandemic will be the first major hurdle.
Scholz was elected by the Bundestag parliament on Wednesday, December 8 after two months of coalition negotiations.
A look back: When Scholz took the stage at his party headquarters on election night at the end of September, he was met by jubilation from exuberantly grateful party members.
Scholz had just achieved what had seemed impossible just months before: He had lifted the center-left Social Democrats out of its lowest polling numbers for years to the win the election outright.
Two months later, the mood was more sober as Scholz was back on stage on a rainy afternoon in Berlin. This time he was flanked by his new coalition partners to present the results of several weeks of what had been described as tortuous negotiations.
This was Scholz’s first time appearing as Germany’s designated chancellor, and he adopted a serious tone. There was no celebratory preamble to the coalition contract. Instead he solemnly read out a long list of immediate measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, underlining the gravity of country’s ongoing health crisis.
A surprise chancellor
Germany has come a long way since the spring, when the SPD was polling at 15%, and Scholz was not even particularly popular in his own party, having lost a party leadership bid just two years ago to more left-wing opponents.
But the Social Democrats’ campaign focused heavily on the 63-year-old. He dominated the posters, he stood center stage and he took part in the political debates, hoping to project an image of a level-headed statesman with robust government experience both at state level and in the federal government. The SPD presented him as the natural successor to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Scholz has been the finance minister in Merkel’s Cabinet since 2018 and is also the vice chancellor in the current governing coalition consisting of the CDU/CSU and SPD.
But how much of a Social Democrat is Scholz? It seems like a strange question, but the answer requires a look at the party’s recent past. In 2019, Scholz wanted to become SPD chairman. However, in a membership vote, he lost out to eventual co-chairs Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who had promised to move the SPD further to the left.
Scholz has always been seen as belonging to the more conservative wing of the SPD. That made it all the more surprising when Esken and Walter-Borjans nominated him as the party’s chancellor candidate in August 2020. In the end, the SPD opted for a chancellor candidate it had not wanted as party leader.
When he was chosen as the candidate, Scholz said he and the party leadership worked together closely and harmoniously. “We actually started cooperating closely with each other right after the election of the SPD chairpersons, and a very close trust grew from that, so that at some point I felt like the two of them would propose me, and the two of them also felt very early on that they should propose me,” he said.
Such a sentence exemplifies how Scholz deals with crises: he gets up, continues undeterred and never doubts himself. He seems blessed with unshakable self-confidence. In his decadeslong political career, he has experienced many a blow, but none that threw him off course for long.
Wednesday’s presentation was the first time Scholz had appeared as chancellor-in-waiting
Sober in a crisis
Not even the cum ex tax scandal and the Wirecard fraud case were able to derail Scholz. Although he didn’t come off looking good in the inquiry committees in parliament, neither cases had any political consequences — he always knew how to let accusations roll off his back. He pulled off the trick once again one week before the Bundestag election in a special session of the Finance Committee dealing with errors in supervising the FIU anti-money laundering unit.
During the pandemic Scholz, as finance minister, has stood for the billions the government has provided in aid. He also knew how to use that to put himself in the spotlight time and again. “It is the bazooka with which we are now doing what is necessary,” he promised in the spring of 2020, immediately after the pandemic reached Germany.
Since the pandemic began, Scholz’s motto has been that Germany can financially cope with the crisis. By 2022, Germany will have taken on €400 billion ($467 billion) in new debt. Scholz promised during the election campaign that Germany would be able to grow its way out of debt. “No one need be afraid of this, we’ve already managed it once, after the last crisis in 2008/2009, and we’ll manage it again in just under 10 years,” he said.
He took the same approach to climate protection. The Greens have some good ideas, he maintains, but they can only be implemented with the help of the SPD. “Pragmatic, but oriented toward the future” is how Scholz sums up his program.
Scholz, seen here with former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schöder in 2003, was first elected to the Bundestag in 1998
In foreign policy, Scholz stands for continuity. Under his leadership, Germany would work for a “strong, sovereign Europe” that speaks “with one voice,” “because otherwise, we won’t play a role,” he said. With the global population poised to reach 10 billion, there will be “many powers in the future, not only China, the US, and Russia,” but also many Asian countries. He sees cooperation with the United States and NATO as a fundamental principle.
This message apparently went down well with the general public. In uncertain times, pragmatism is more in demand than charisma, which is certainly something Scholz lacks. He doesn’t know how to express himself or show emotion. Even in moments of great joy, he shows all the restraint of a British butler.
It took Scholz a long time to learn that politics is also about putting himself and his message in the spotlight and being able to sell both well. During the election campaign, he appeared more approachable, friendlier and closer to people. He even changed his gestures and facial expressions.
A stealthy rise to the top
For many years, he was known by the name “Scholzomat,” a play on the words “Scholz” and “Automat,” or machine.
The weekly newspaper Die Zeit coined the term in 2003 because Scholz, then SPD secretary-general, had a habit of defending labor market reform in repetitive technocratic speech formulas.
“I was the salesman of the message. I had to display a certain relentlessness,” Scholz later said.
The introverted, business-oriented pragmatist from Hamburg, who only says as much as is absolutely necessary, did not have an easy time with the SPD. When he ran for party office, Scholz usually got the worst results. Nevertheless, he managed to silently and efficiently work his way up the political ladder.
In the process, Scholz underwent a remarkable political transformation. As deputy chairman of the SPD youth organization Jusos, he was still a radical socialist in the 1980s, promoting “the overcoming of the capitalist economy.” But through his work as a labor law lawyer with his own firm in Hamburg, he learned a lot about business and entrepreneurship. That experience shaped him.
Scholz was SPD secretary-general, federal labor minister, state interior minister and governing mayor of Hamburg before becoming finance minister in 2018.
This is an updated version of article first published on September 27, 2021.
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