Boring. That’s the word that had been most often used by political colleagues and analysts alike to describe Olaf Scholz, the man who is most likely now to become the next Chancellor of Germany. And in the coming weeks as he tries to hammer out a coalition deal with the Greens and Liberals to secure enough seats in the Bundestag to form a government.
Scholz led the Socialist Party (SPD) to the largest share of the vote in last Sunday’s federal election — the first time in 16 years where retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel wasn’t on ballot papers. As it was, her preferred successor, Armin Laschet led the Christian Democrats to second with 24.1 per cent of the votes — but with few options for potential coalition building and little willingness from a victorious Scholz to team up once more.
The Socialists’ election campaign focused on their leader and his impressive record as Finance Minister in the outgoing CDU-SPD coalition. It was a personal victory for the career politicians, the 63-year-old who has been involved in German politics for decades — being cast as a safe pair of hands that could be trusted now that Merkel has retired. The game plan was to sell him as a natural replacement — and 11.9 million German voters cast ballots for his party. It has been around since the formation of modern Germany and the chancellorship of Otto von Bismarck, a party that opposed and suffered during the Hitler years.
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. He — like Merkel, remains in the position until there is a new coalition in place — and he is eager to form that sooner rather than later.
In part, his election victory stemmed from his hand on Germany’s finances at a time the largest economy in Europe — like those everywhere else too — stalled and entered economic hibernation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
He convinced Germans, notoriously tight when it comes to providing direct federal assistance the economy, that the nation was strong enough to cope. By 2022, Germany will have taken on €400 billion in new debt — and he campaigned on a promise that it would be able to grow out of the new debt levels.
“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. Calming words — delivered from a man who knows federal finances better than most.
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 programme.
When it comes to foreign policy, think Merkel. He’s promising continuity and providing strong leadership for the rest of Europe that will speak with one unified voice built from a position of pragmatism and compromise.
Pragmatism, yes — but hardly charisma, a quality that he mostly lacks, showing all the signs of restraint as a British butler. Only during the campaign did Germans get to see a warmer and gentler side, changing his facial expressions too. That explains why for many years he was known by the name “Scholzomat,” a play on the words “Scholz” and “Automat” or machine and coined by Die Zeit newspaper in 2003 because he had a habit of defending labour market reform in repetitive technocratic speech formulas.
He’s also from the conservative strain of the SPD, a business-oriented pragmatist from Hamburg, who only says as much as is absolutely necessary. It’s a transformation that started out from his anti-capitalist views when deputy chairman of the SPD youth organisation in the 1980s.
Scholz, who is married to fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst, grew up in Hamburg and entered politics as a Socialist Youth leader, having studied labour law. He was mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, during which time his politics became less radical. He was first elected to the Bundestag in 1998.
His victory is all the more remarkable given that the SPD had not won a national election since 2002, and he managed to shake off accusations of carelessness from Laschet over a wire fraud scandal where his finance department seemed asleep at the switch.
The Greens and Free Democrats plan to hold talks with each other before entering into formal talks with Scholz. With 206 seats the SPD may be the largest party in the Bundestag — but it falls well short of ta majority in the 736-seat chamber. The Christian Democrats ended up with 196 seats — meaning Scholz is likely to be chancellor, but nothing is a given. His favoured deal would be the so-called “traffic light” coalition with the Greens, the yellow party colours of the FDP and, of course, the Greens.
The Green and FDP leaders met on Tuesday and, after the meeting, FDP leader Christian Lindner posted a photo on Instagram of himself and General Secretary Volker Wissing, alongside the Greens’ co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck.
The caption read: “In the search for a new government, we are seeking out common ground and bridges over our divisions. And we are even finding some of those things. Exciting times.”
Both parties have diverging political agendas on addressing issues such as climate change and economic policy, but do come together in areas such as progressive social policy.
After 2017’s elections, a CDU/CSU bid to set up a three-way alliance with the Greens and the FDP collapsed when the FDP walked out, complaining that they were the third wheel. Germany ended up with another grand coalition between the two main parties instead.
Laschet said on Tuesday that he planned to hold talks with the Greens and FDP about forming a coalition “in the next few days.”
But any deal will take time. Merkel knows that, Laschet too — as does Scholz — with the outgoing CDU-SPD coalition taking six months to reach a deal for government.
But the reality is that Scholz is now the man most likely to be chancellor …. Just not anytime soon. Or if at all.