Europe

Olaf Scholz makes a comeback by making fewer gaffes than his rivals

On paper, it makes perfect sense that Social Democrat (SPD) leader Olaf Scholz is currently the frontrunner in the race to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor.

Scholz spent ten years as leader of the SPD and has twice served as a senior minister in Merkel’s grand coalition government, including as finance minister of Europe’s largest economy. Since 2018, Scholz has served as vice-chancellor, effectively Merkel’s second in command.

Despite two decades in the top echelons of an ostensibly left-wing party, Scholz is relatively fiscally conservative, in favour of reining in public spending and debt. He was one of the main proponents within the SPD to compromise with Merkel and a coalition with CDU.

As such, Scholz is more than qualified.

Yet as recently as 2019, the SPD did not want Scholz as its candidate, instead choosing two party leaders from the left.

Until July this year, the SPD was polling at under 20% at a time when Merkel’s CDU — headed by her successor, Armin Laschet — was polling at over 40%. It had looked as if the CDU, even without Merkel, was heading for a landslide.

As of late September 2021, those positions have flipped, with most polls predicting an SPD landslide and Scholz as the next chancellor of Germany, the first SPD leader since 2002.

“I think a couple of months back, very few would have put any money on such a comeback,” said Matthias Dilling, a lecturer in comparative politics at Oxford University.

Part of the reason for the reversal of Scholz’s fortune has been the misfortune of his rivals, Laschet and Annabella Baerbock, the leader of the Greens.

Laschet took a hit after being caught on camera laughing during a heartfelt address by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to flood victims in August, while Baerbock has been dogged by allegations of plagiarism over a book she published ahead of the election.

Laschet has also struggled to keep the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Bavarian Union (CSU) axis together as Merkel, the great unifier of German politics, prepares to leave the stage. Many in the CSU would have preferred its young and popular leader, Markus Söder, to take on the leadership of the bloc and be the candidate to replace Merkel.

Scholz, meanwhile, has managed to keep the socialist left of the SPD and its political allies in the Bundestag together, giving an uncharacteristic display of unity on the left amid confusion, bickering and infighting within the CDU-CSU axis.

“The SPD under Scholz has managed to make fewer — or no — public mistakes compared to the other two parties,” Dilling said.

And party politics aside, Scholz’s personal approval ratings are far higher than both Laschet or Baerbock, with an INSA poll in August finding that 27% would vote for him if the chancellor was directly elected by the public, compared to 14% for Laschet and 13% for Baerbock.

This despite Scholz’s infamous lack of charisma, with the former mayor of Hamburg who joined the SPD at 17 nicknamed “Scholzomat” due to his austere appearance and monotone speaking style. A colleague reportedly said of Scholz: “emotionality is not his thing”.

But politically, Scholz has long backed causes such as social housing and raising the minimum wage, key policies under his campaign slogan #ausrespekt (“out of respect”).

Since he replaced the fiscally conservative Wolfgang Schaüble as finance minister in 2018, Scholz has distanced himself from the gruff, moralising tone of his predecessor, especially towards the perceived laxity of much of southern Europe.

At the same time, Scholz has been careful not to unravel Schaüble’s rigorous discipline. As in other countries, similar positions adopted by politicians from traditionally left-wing parties have not always gone down well with the rank-and-file. In Germany, labour market liberalisation and budgetary austerity have shellshocked many on the left.

As finance minister, he faced allegations of being asleep at the helm during the Wirecard scandal, as the German financial service provider cooked the books.

Yet Scholz has also won plaudits for being ready to throw the kitchen sink at the pandemic-ravaged economy. Presenting his coronavirus aid package, he made headlines with talk of pulling out the “bazooka” to haul Germany out of the crisis with “oomph”.

The result is that after years of budget surplus, the country now has billions of euros of debt. “All that is expensive, but to do nothing would have been even more costly,” he said.

As a centrist who has not always retained the support of his own party, Scholz may not have an easy run as chancellor if he does find himself elected to that position on Sunday. But neither did Merkel, who — also as a centrist — held together a broad and at times unruly political coalition on the centre right through significant political earthquakes in Germany and abroad.

Germany will be hoping that Scholz, as her number two, learned how to walk that line as expertly as his former boss.

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