In a recent profile, the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel described the favourite in the race to be German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, attending the G20 finance ministers meeting in Venice in July.
t was the Social Democrat’s first visit to the famously romantic city, but Scholz is famously prosaic. Instead of gushing about Venice’s charms, he pointed out how the arches in the City of Canals reminded him of the architecture close to City Hall in Hamburg.
The 63-year-old leader had cut his political teeth in the mercantile north German port. Hamburg is where he honed the survival skills that have made him frontrunner in tomorrow’s federal election. Within days he could become Germany’s next chancellor and the most powerful man in Europe.
Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has maintained a stable lead of around five percentage points through most of September. The SPD have not had a chancellor since Gerhard Schröder left the chancellery in 2005; but since 1998, when Schröder deposed Helmut Kohl and the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), they have spent two decades in coalition.
Now the SPD are set to take the leadership role and replace Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in power.
It’s hard to contemplate the replacement of Merkel. You almost expect to hear thunder and lightning outside the window.
Scholz may be a dry character but he is competent. His lack of charisma is not a problem — in fact it may work in his favour as flashy characters tend not to poll well in Germany.
His nickname is “Scholzomat” because of his robotic public appearances — like an automat. Few German voters really believe Scholz, or the other two main challengers — Armin Laschet, who is Merkel’s candidate for the CDU, or the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock, will be able to fill Merkel’s shoes. But he has succeeding in carving out a place for himself as the best of the rest.
“Scholz is a master of saying nothing in a lot of ways. It’s hard to know where he stands. With (former finance minister) Wolfgang Schäuble, you knew where you stood. But with Scholz, caution is his watchword… you can’t interpret what he is at,” said one senior European source who has had numerous dealings with Scholz.
“In many ways he’s a lucky general. His rivals have made mistakes,” said the source.
His backing for the EU’s €750bn debt-backed Next Generation EU fund to deal with the pandemic’s devastating economic effects was the most decisive factor in winning the candidacy for chancellor.
The key question for Ireland is how he will address the thorny issue of our low corporate tax rate if he moves into the chancellery. Already a rise in the tax seems inevitable, but as the main power player in Europe, Scholz is bound to have a say in how this is resolved.
As finance minister, Scholz knows Paschal Donohoe well and has also been in discussions with him about efforts to encourage Ireland to join other OECD nations in backing a 15pc corporation tax deal. He appears to have played both sides in the argument, something one would never have expected from Schäuble.
“If we have a level playing field, I’m sure that a country that is as successful as Ireland is at attracting businesses with good jobs will have a good basis for working with this new situation in the next years,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
Scholz is a political survivor, who always seems to bounce back. He grew up as the eldest of three in Hamburg where his parents worked in the textile industry. He took a law degree, becoming an attorney specialising in labour law. He is deeply networked within the Social Democrat apparatus. After he lost his seat in the Hamburg senate, then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder made him general secretary of the Social Democrats in 2002.
Forced to step down 18 months later during a reform battle, again he fought back, becoming federal labour minister in 2007, mayor of Hamburg in 2011 and eventually deputy chancellor and finance minister in 2018. He succeeded the legendary Schäuble as finance minister, a name well known in Ireland for the way he strictly enforced austerity and budgetary orthodoxy in the eurozone after the financial collapse of 2008. Scholz was close to Schäuble, even though they were in different parties.
In 2019, his ambitions were thwarted once more when he failed in his bid to become party leader. However, nine months later he bounced back as the SPD’s candidate to be chancellor, even though he is still not actually the party leader. Crucially, he again won the blessing of former chancellor Schröder.
“I thought — wow, that’s a surprising decision, but it’s also the right one — both in terms of the timing and the person,” Schröder said as he gave Scholz his backing.
His centrist stance is all the more surprising given he started his political career as something of a Marxist. Photos of Scholz from the 1980s show a long-haired and passionate “Juso”, a young Social Democrat, at the podium. Between 1987 and 1989 he was chairman of the International Union of Socialist Youth, ranting against Nato’s imperialist aggression, and slamming West Germany as a bastion of capitalism, even attacking his fellow young lefties for not being “sufficiently anti-capitalist”.
A key factor in Scholz’s success has been the skilful campaign the Social Democrats have run, in contrast to rivals. The Christian Democrats appear divided and polls indicate the Greens have failed to build on an early burst of popularity for their candidate Annalena Baerbock.
“We decided very early on who would be our candidate for chancellor — in August 2020, because we knew it would be a long run. Even before that, we showed that the SPD is united — that’s important for voters,” Scholz said in one interview.
“Together, we set out a confident programme that answers the questions that are important for Germany. This has been reflected in growing support for the SPD and also for me — which I find very moving; after all, it’s not an easy office I’m running for.
“There is a spirit of optimism in the country. That’s noticeable everywhere in the market squares and in numerous conversations with voters. But in this final week, I still want to campaign for a new beginning and convince as many people as possible,” said Scholz.
His call for a €12 minimum wage is popular, and even won him support from the hard left of his party. It’s been a campaign where identifying the issues has been difficult — climate change, economic recovery and the future of the EU have been discussed, but the key issues in Scholz’s manifesto were a minimum wage hike and pension reforms.
In effect, the tactic was to sit back and wait and let the other candidates make mistakes. Armin Laschet was a last-minute choice after much in-party bickering. Following Merkel was always going to be a challenge and she did little to foster a viable successor.
The image of a party in disarray has alienated core voters, but the moment at which the campaign jumped the shark was when Laschet, who is premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was seen laughing in Erfstadt, one of the worst-hit areas during July’s calamitous floods. Laschet has struggled to shake off this gaffe-prone, buffoonish image.
The Greens started well with their 40-year-old candidate Annalena Baerbock, hitting 28pc in opinion polls early on. She has since been plagued by setbacks, such as questions about tax, allegations that she faked aspects of her CV and accusations of plagiarism about her book. However, the Greens continue to score highly and shouldn’t be ruled out in Sunday’s polls.
It’s a strangely unpredictable election. The far-right AfD have not gone away, and will vie with the liberal Free Democrats for fourth place.
‘Traffic light’ coalition
As to the final outcome, the SPD is building bridges with the Greens as the campaign reaches its climax and polls show the parties are likely to be at the centre of the next coalition. Scholz wants to isolate the hard-left Die Linke party and some are talking about a “traffic light” coalition of red (Social Democrats), yellow (Free Democrats) and green (the Greens) — this would be Germany’s first three-way coalition.
“I won’t make a secret of the fact that ideally I’d like to form a government with the Greens,” Scholz has said.
The question German voters will ask on Sunday is whether Scholz’s political chops will be enough to help him replace Merkel as chancellor after 16 years in power. During that remarkable period, which critics say was too long and has left Germany difficult to govern, Merkel espoused a policy of pragmatism and stability that helped Germany, and indeed Europe, survive global recession, the near-collapse of the euro, the shock of Brexit and the impact of mass migration in 2015.
On the other hand, her critics say her failure to address key issues such as the future of Europe, the threat of China and Russia, and the challenges of climate change, have left her successor with a formidable challenge. “Scholzomat” thinks he’s up for it.