Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader and top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz during the party leadership meeting, one day after the general elections, in Berlin on September 27, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Berlin: Olaf Scholz has managed what many in Germany had considered impossible: bringing the Social Democrats back from the dead.

Germany’s oldest political party, the center-left Social Democratic Party, known by its German acronym SPD, has languished in the polls for years. But in Sunday’s elections, the SPD pulled ahead, winning 26 percent of the vote, according to preliminary numbers. The centre-right Christian Democrats won 24 percent of the vote, the lowest mark for the party since its founding in 1945.

The tight totals leave an unclear and lengthy path forward for Scholz to build a coalition. Scholz and Christian Democratic leader Armin Laschet have said they hope to have a coalition formed by Christmas.

Scholz’s party was the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela’s Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats in Germany’s outgoing government, the third time it joined its traditional rival in a coalition. It’s a position the SPD took on reluctantly - but one that has enabled Scholz to raise his profile nationally.

As finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel’s cabinet during the pandemic, Scholz, 63, built a reputation for having steady hands during a crisis. He oversaw the distribution of billions of euros in coronavirus relief and emergency aid to victims of the summer’s deadly flooding in western Germany.

He has been dubbed the “Scholzomat” for his dry - verging on boring - political style. But that may have served him well with voters still attached to Merkel, who was hardly known for impassioned speeches. Despite being from a different party, he has positioned himself as her natural successor after her 16 years in power.

His career buffeted by several scandals

“Obviously Merkel has left a huge impact on the political culture of Germany through her governing style,” said political communications consultant Frank Stauss, who has worked with the SPD in the past. Scholz is not a “Merkel clone” - but he has a similar enough political style and proximity to attract voters that might be looking for more of the same, he added.

A lifelong Social Democrat, Scholz was born in Osnabrck in the western German state of Lower Saxony and raised in the wealthy city-state of Hamburg on Germany’s northern coast, where he also served as mayor. Alternating between state and national politics, he has served in the parliament, or Bundestag, and as minister of labor and social affairs in Merkel’s first cabinet.

His political career has been buffeted by several scandals. While mayor of Hamburg he faced criticism for his handling of the Group of 20 summit in 2017, as the event descended into widespread violence between protesters and police.

A parliamentary inquiry by opposition lawmakers earlier this year called him out for a lack of oversight after the fintech company Wirecard unraveled on his watch in Germany’s biggest postwar fraud scandal. He has rebuffed accusations that he bears any political responsibility.

He has also been questioned in another such inquiry into whether he acted to influence tax authorities on behalf of a Hamburg bank at the center of the what is known as the cum-ex fraud scandal, which deprived the German state of billions of euros in revenue. He has denied any wrongdoing, and ultimately no concrete evidence has emerged against him.

In the latest twist, Scholz was forced to return to Berlin from the campaign trail on Monday to answer questions in the parliamentary finance committee. The inquiry was called after the public prosecutor ordered searches of the finance ministry as it investigates allegations of obstruction of justice at its anti-money laundering unit. SPD lawmakers implied that the timing pointed to a political motive, as Scholz’s party took a lead in the polls.

But he has emerged relatively unscathed. “It has not had a major impact,” said Peter Matuschek, an analyst with polling agency Forsa.

What has really raised the SPD’s flag has been the stumbling campaigns of his rivals.

To the right of his party, Scholz may have been able to win over voters who had voted for the more conservative Christian Democrats because of Merkel. The SPD’s campaign issues include raising minimum wage and taxes on the rich.

Unlike the Greens, who want to phase out coal by 2030, the SPD wants to stick to the existing target date of 2038. The SPD’s traditional support base had included many of Germany’s miners and blue-collar workers before much of that electorate fell away to other parties.