Olaf Scholz is stepping into some big shoes.
After leading his Social Democratic Party (SPD) to a narrow victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Germany’s Finance Minister has the best chance of forming a new government.
According to the federal returning officer, the SDP received 25.7 percent of the vote, while Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received 24.1 percent.
While Scholz’s chances of becoming Germany’s next chancellor are slim, he is in the best position to begin coalition talks with the Green Party, which received 14.8 percent of the vote, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which received 11.5 percent.
Scholz has established himself as a pragmatist and a reliable ally. In fact, despite coming from opposing political parties, his political style is not dissimilar to Merkel’s; the two are similar in many ways.
Corinna Hoerst, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels, described him as “calm, measured, and steady.”
Scholz, according to Hoerst, is an outlier within his own party as a moderate. “The SPD leadership, which is predominantly leftist, initially opposed him. So far, we don’t know who he’ll surround himself with or who will influence his leadership style “she continued.
Sudha David-Wilp, Hoerst’s colleague and deputy director of GMF’s Berlin office, said Scholz shares this centrism with Merkel.
“She always governed from the center and I think he will also try to do that if he does become chancellor, but it will also depend of course on what coalition parties demand,” she said.
The 63-year-old SPD lifer was born in what was then West Germany, a distinction that distinguishes him from Merkel, who grew up in East Germany.
Scholz served in Merkel’s first coalition government in the late 2000s as the Labor and Social Affairs Minister. He was elected mayor of Hamburg in 2011, a position he held until his death in 2015.
Since then, he has served in Merkel’s grand coalition government as vice-chancellor and finance minister, a powerful position in German national politics.
When he oversaw Germany’s generous coronavirus compensation programs for businesses, employees, and those who lost income as a result of having to quarantine during the pandemic, his profile soared even higher.
“He has been [Merkel’s] right hand man when it comes to leading the country over the past four years … he [played] second fiddle to Merkel, but he has tremendous power within the German government, and also in Europe [where he] represents Germany when it comes to Euro policies,” David-Wilp said.
Scholz, unlike Merkel, who has become a household name around the world as a result of her long tenure, is little known outside of Brussels’ political circles.
If he is elected chancellor, he has stated that forming a stronger and more sovereign European Union, as well as working to improve Germany’s relationship with the United States, will be his top foreign policy priorities.
He added that as the world “becomes more dangerous,” democratic countries must cooperate. “It is important that we work together, even if we do have conflict in one or the other question,” he said.
Scholz has faced his fair share of political difficulties in the past.
He was chastised as mayor of Hamburg for his handling of violent protests that erupted during a G20 summit his city hosted in 2017.
Hundreds of police officers were injured in clashes with protesters as Hamburg descended into chaos during the summit. Scholz was blamed for the city’s lack of preparation because he downplayed the potential risk of demonstrations.
Scholz will try to woo the Greens and the FDP as coalition talks begin, but such talks can take months.
The jury is still out on what kind of chancellor Scholz will be until then.
“It will be a shift because there is no longer Merkel,” Hoerst said, before adding: “I doubt it will be big.”