German Election 2021

Olaf Scholz turns unlikely saviour of Germany's SPD

Published : September 28, 2021 17:28 IST

Olaf Scholz has managed to impress German voters with his calm demeanour. Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

Olaf Scholz revived the SPD. His is a story of perseverance. But will he head the next German government?

As Olaf Scholz, the SPD chancellor candidate, took the stage in his party headquarters on election night, he was met by cheers and a banner saying "thank you." He had just achieved what had seemed impossible not so long ago: He had lifted the SPD out of the low polling numbers it had been witnessing for years.

In the spring of 2021, the party was polling at 15 per cent. Now it looks to have won 25.7 per cent of the vote. It has been a fantastic game of catch-up.

But the door to the chancellory isn't open yet. Who will govern Germany will only become clear after the coalition negotiations that will unfold in the coming weeks and months. Despite their lead in the polls, the CDU/CSU could still lead the government if they forge an alliance with the Greens and FDP. 

SPD has a lot to thank Scholz for

Scholz, Scholz, always Scholz. During the election campaign, the SPD focused primarily on its candidate for chancellor. He dominated the posters, he stood on the stages and he took part in the political debates. The Social Democrats' campaign revolved entirely around the 63-year-old.

The image the SPD wanted to convey of him was that of a level-headed statesman with robust government experience. They wanted him to seem like the natural successor to Angela Merkel, who did not stand for re-election after 16 years as chancellor. Scholz has been the finance minister in Merkel's cabinet since 2018 and is also the vice-chancellor in the current governing coalition consisting of the CDU/CSU and SPD. He — like Merkel — will remain in his current office until a new government is in place.

The candidate of a party that didn't want him as leader

But how much of a Social Democrat is Olaf Scholz really? It seems like a strange question, but the answer requires a look at the Social Democrats' recent past. In 2019, Olaf Scholz wanted to become SPD chairman. However, in a membership vote, he lost out to Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who had promised to move the SPD to the left.

Olaf Scholz has always been seen as belonging to the more conservative wing of the SPD. That made it all the more surprising when Esken and Walter-Borjans nominated him as the party's chancellor candidate in August 2020. In the end, the SPD opted for a chancellor candidate it had not wanted as party leader.

Rolling with the punches

When he was chosen as the candidate, Scholz said he and the party leadership worked together closely and harmoniously. "We actually started cooperating closely with each other right after the election of the SPD chairpersons, and a very close trust grew from that, so that at some point I felt like the two of them would propose me, and the two of them also felt very early on that they should propose me."

Such a sentence exemplifies how Olaf Scholz deals with crises: getting up, continuing undeterred, and never doubting himself. He seems blessed with unshakable self-confidence. In his decades-long political career, he has experienced many a blow, but none that threw him off course for long.

Sober and pragmatic works during a crisis

Not even the Cum-Ex tax scandal and the Wirecard fraud case were able to derail Scholz. Although he did not come off looking good in the inquiry committees in parliament, neither cases had any political consequences for him. He always knew how to let accusations roll off him. He pulled off the trick once again one week before the Bundestag elections, in a special session of the Finance Committee dealing with errors in supervising the FIU anti-money laundering unit.

During the COVID pandemic, Scholz as finance minister stood for the billions the government provided in aid. He also knew how to use that to put himself in the spotlight time and again. "It is the bazooka with which we are now doing what is necessary," he promised in the spring of 2020, immediately after the pandemic had reached Germany.

'No one need be afraid'

Since the pandemic began, Scholz's motto has been that Germany can financially cope with the crisis. By 2022, Germany will have taken on €400 billion in new debt. Scholz promised during the election campaign that Germany would be able to grow its way out of debt. "No one need be afraid of this, we've already managed it once, after the last crisis in 2008/2009, and we'll manage it again in just under ten years."

He took the same approach to climate protection. The Greens have some good ideas, he maintains, but they can only be implemented with the help of the SPD. "Pragmatic, but oriented toward the future" is how Scholz sums up his program.

In foreign policy, Scholz stands for continuity. Under his leadership, Germany would work for a "strong, sovereign Europe" that speaks "with one voice," "because otherwise, we won't play a role," says Scholz. With the global population poised to reach 10 billion, there will be "many powers in the future, not only China, the US, and Russia," but also many Asian countries. He sees cooperation with the US and in NATO as a fundamental principle.

This apparently went down well with the general public. In uncertain times, pragmatism is more in demand than charisma. Charisma is certainly something Scholz lacks. He doesn't know how to express himself or show emotion. Even in moments of great joy, he shows all the restraint of a British butler.

It took Olaf Scholz a long time to learn that politics is also about putting himself and his message in the spotlight and being able to sell both well. During the election campaign, he appeared more approachable, friendlier, and closer to people. He even changed his gestures and facial expressions. 

A stealthy but efficient rise to the top

For many years, he was known by the name "Scholzomat," a play on the words "Scholz" and "Automat" or machine. The weekly newspaper Die Zeit coined the term in 2003 because Scholz, then SPD secretary-general, had a habit of defending labour market reform in repetitive technocratic speech formulas. "I was the salesman of the message. I had to display a certain relentlessness," Scholz later said.

The introverted, business-oriented pragmatist from Hamburg, who only says as much as is absolutely necessary, did not have an easy time with the SPD. When he ran for party office, Scholz usually got the worst results. Nevertheless, he managed to silently and efficiently work his way up the political ladder.

From critic of capitalism to federal finance ministerIn the process, Scholz underwent a remarkable political transformation. As deputy chairman of the SPD youth organization Jusos, he was still a radical socialist in the 1980s, promoting "the overcoming of the capitalist economy." But through his work as a labour law lawyer with his own firm in Hamburg, he learned a lot about business and entrepreneurship. That shaped him.

Scholz has been SPD secretary-general, federal labour minister, state interior minister and governing mayor of Hamburg before becoming finance minister in 2018. He wants to govern with the Greens and with the FDP. But they will also be courted by the CDU/CSU. Who will win the race in the end — and whether Olaf Scholz will move into the chancellery — will only become clear in the coming weeks, as exploratory talks get underway. 

This article was first published in April 2021 and has been updated to reflect recent developments.