Berlin Cable

September 09, 2021

Operation Olaf

With great strategic foresight and remarkable focus, the Social Democrats’ candidate Olaf Scholz is now leading the race to replace Angela Merkel. What to expect?

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SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz looks on after an event to kick off his campaign, in Bochum, Germany, August 14, 2021.
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“The race is completely open. The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) won’t recover from their fall in the polls und end up at something clearly below 30 percent. That opens the way for a government without the CDU/CSU. The Social Democrats (SPD) can become strong enough for me to become Germany’s next chancellor.”

So said German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is running as the SPD’s “candidate for chancellor,” at the end of April, in an interview with Germany’s tabloid BILD am Sonntag. Hilarity ensued.

At that point, the Greens’ nomination of Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for chancellor had just pushed support for the party to stratospheric heights. At the peak of the “Annalena hype,” 28 percent of Germans said they were willing to vote Green come elections on September 26. A Green chancellery seemed within reach. The Christian Demcoratic Union and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), meanwhile, with a tough internal fight behind them, had just chosen CDU leader Armin Laschet over Bavarian premier and CSU leader Markus Söder, as their candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Christian Democrats, with internal rivalries seemingly settled, replaced the Greens as leaders of the pack in mid-May, polling in the higher 20s. Germany’s “natural political order” had reasserted itself, or so it seemed.

The SPD? It stood at 13 percent when Scholz made those remarks.

No one is laughing now, except Germany’s shrewd finance minister and his supporters—who seem an ever-growing group. With the German election campaign entering its final stretch, Scholz’ popularity—always much greater than Baerbock’s and Laschet’s—has finally morphed into support for his party. At the beginning of September, the Social Democrats overtook the Christian Democrats in the polls, now consistently scoring 25 percent and more, while the CDU/CSU seemingly stuck at 20-22 percent. With only two more weeks to go, there is now much to suggest that Germany’s next government will be led by Olaf Scholz.

A Successful Strategy

It is rare that political calculations pan out so precisely. For the former employment minister (2007-09) and Hamburg mayor (2011-18), it was a stroke of genius to lock in the SPD’s nomination as chancellor candidate as early as a year ago. After having narrowly lost the party leadership to a duo of left-wing non-entities, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, in a grassroots membership vote, Scholz managed to effectively bounce his candidacy on a divided and dispirited party.

Perhaps most miraculously, the SPD has shown uncharacteristic discipline since the campaign started in earnest. There’s been next to no sniping, even when Scholz deftly steers the SPD on a distinctly centrist course. The candidate has practically merged with his party. The SPD is Scholz, at least for now.

As with all great strategists, Scholz needed some luck, too. Having to compete against Laschet and Baerbock rather than Söder and Green co-leader Robert Habeck has certainly helped propel Scholz’ meteoric rise. Laschet has been unable to project the seriousness and focus Germans rightly expect from would-be chancellors. And the number of unforced errors on the part of Baerbock, from embellishing her resumé to publishing an ill-conceived book, has sowed doubts about her suitability. It has become obvious that the Green candidate and those around her may not yet have reached the level of professionalism required to aim at the highest office.

Scholz, in contrast, projects professionalism and reliability almost to a fault. What’s more, while Laschet’s CDU couldn’t make up its mind whether the Merkel years were a success story or basically a wrong turn, Scholz has snatched Merkel’s mantle. With his calm, composed, and rational demeaner, our predecessor BERLIN POLICY JOURNAL aptly described him as “Merkel’s red twin.” Cheekily, Scholz even copied Merkel’s famous hand gesture at a magazine shoot, pointing to a sense of humor that is mostly kept hidden. His “Merkelness” is a vote winner in times when most Germans want change, but just not too much of it.

Getting It Going

While the CDU/CSU is currently trying to fight back and should not be written off, Scholz has certainly a very good shot now at leading Germany’s next government—most likely as head of a so-called “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). (A left-leaning coalition of SPD, Greens, and the hard-left Die Linke party remains unlikely, even if the CDU/CSU is now using it as an attack line.)

Some observers suspect that such a coalition would be deadlocked from the start. For instance, with its tax proposals, which would largely benefit high earners and businesses, the FDP is far apart from the SPD and the Greens, with both parties proposing a wealth tax and plans to support low-income earners. However, it seems more likely that a “traffic light” coalition, as a representation of Germany’s rejigged political center, could actually deliver just the right mix of entrepreneurial get-go and social conscience to successfully transition Europe’s economic powerhouse into a carbon-neutral, digitalized future.

Scholz has certainly given a lot of thought to the future of Germany’s economy in a globalized world, and there is much confidence within the SPD that Scholz would be able to not only bridge the gaps with his potential coalition partners, but also get the first three-way coalition in post-war Germany on the national level going, too.

A Deeper Europe

It is also clear that Scholz is very much invested in the concept of “European sovereignty.” It was, after all, his finance ministry which, in close cooperation with its French counterparts, paved the way for the European Union to take the step of a common issuance of debt to finance Europe’s €750 billion post-COVID-19 NextGeneration EU recovery program. Afterwards, Scholz spoke proudly of the EU’s “Hamiltonian moment”—an exaggeration, for now. But with him in the Chancellery and French President Emmanuel Macron reelected in April 2022, a huge window of opportunity would open for more ambitious integrational steps, which Merkel shied away from.

This may be strong stuff for the FDP. The party, however, which once supported SPD Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt and later the great European Helmut Kohl in office from the 1970s to the 2000s may rediscover its European soul ones it is back at the center of power. In this connection, Scholz can almost be thankful that Paul Ziemiak, the CDU’s secretary general and Laschet wingman, attacked Scholz this week as a proponent of a “social Europe” which would lead to “a nurse in [the East German town of] Chemnitz” having to pay “for someone unemployed in Romania,” which would lead to the “break-up of the EU.” In fact, Scholz only supports closer fiscal cooperation within the eurozone. But a strong result for him and the SPD would show that there are majorities to win in Germany for deeper European integration. 

Tougher on China

Where the Greens and the FDP—and the SPD too—almost perfectly align, however, is on China. A “new tone” will likely be set, friends and allies from Lithuania and Sweden to Canada and Australia that are being bullied by an over-aggressive China would be more vocally supported, the narrative of German “dependence” on Beijing would be questioned, even if Scholz has been somewhat “Merkelian” on China policy in the past.

The transatlantic relationship would profit from this, even though Scholz and the Greens are somewhat wobbly on defense and security—neither have come out with resounding support for NATO’s 2-percent goal. However, Scholz has pointed to a growing defense budget in the current government and promised to make sure that the Bundeswehr is well-equipped. Post-election, he may well drop his blocking of armed drones.

Thus, Scholz may not only be the most palatable pick for Germans when it comes to determining the country’s post-Merkel course. Europe and the democratic world would also have little the fear and much to hope from a Chancellor Scholz.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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