BERLIN – Olaf Scholz has succeeded in his campaign to become Germany’s next Chancellor mainly by convincing voters that he would look a lot like the imposing and long-time figure he will replace: Angela Merkel.
Laconic, knowledgeable and refraining from any gesture of triumph, Mr Scholz not only looked like the outgoing Chancellor, he perfected the art of embodying his aura of stability and calm to the point of holding his hands together in its signature diamond shape.
“He is like a footballer who has studied another player’s videos and changed his game,” said Robin Alexander, a longtime political observer of Ms Merkel and Mr Scholz. “From temperament and political style to facial expression, Scholz is now channeling Merkel. If Scholz were a woman, he would wear a pantsuit.
As Mr Scholz unveiled his new government on Wednesday and prepares to take office next month, a question for Germany and for all of Europe and the world is: can he deliver and fulfill the very big shoes from Mrs Merkel?
Rarely has a German leader come to power with so many searing crises.
As soon as he takes the oath as chancellor in early December, Scholz will have to deal with an outbreak of pandemic, tensions on the Polish-Belarusian border, a Russian president mobilizing troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, more China. conflictual and a less reliable United States.
“The pressure is enormous,” said Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The new government is taking office in a situation that has heated up on several fronts. And in terms of foreign policy, Olaf Scholz remains a bit of an enigma.
Indeed, who Olaf Scholz will run for Chancellor in two weeks is a matter of intense speculation. Longtime Social Democrat Mr Scholz, 63, has been a familiar face in German politics for more than two decades and served in two of Merkel’s governments, most recently as finance minister.
But he’s also been a sort of political chameleon, a pragmatic politician who straddles left and right so easily that it’s sometimes hard to know where he stands.
Born in Osnabrück, in northern Germany, Mr. Scholz grew up in Hamburg, the city he would later lead as mayor. His grandfather was a railway worker, his parents worked in the textile industry. He and his brothers were the first in his family to go to college.
He was still in high school when he joined the Social Democrats. A fiery young socialist, he spent a decade as a labor advocate defending workers threatened by factory closures. Then, as secretary general of his party under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s last center-left administration, he defended painful labor market reforms with a mechanical efficiency that earned him the nickname “Scholzo-mat”.
When he was first elected to parliament, he sat on the left wing of his party. Today he is seen to be to the right of much of his base, much like President Biden in the United States, with whom he is sometimes compared.
But as with Biden, some see it as left-wing reflexes.
Mr Scholz lost his party leadership race to two leftists two years ago, but surprised and impressed some of his fiercest detractors in his own party when he released a “bazooka” of hundreds of billion euros in state aid to help fight workers and businesses during the pandemic.
Some hope that this – and his election campaign theme centered on respect for the working classes – was proof that the young idealist turned post-ideological centrist could become more radical again in his sixties.
“The bazooka was a big moment,” said Kevin Kühnert, an outspoken leftist and one of the deputy leaders of the Social Democrats. “It was late peace with his party. And that was the start of a deeper social transformation he hopes.
Mr Scholz, who reportedly lost 12 kilograms, around 26 pounds and quit drinking alcohol before the election, has long been underestimated. He always played a long game. His ambition to become chancellor dates back to 2011, according to a relative.
Even political opponents speak with admiration of his political instinct, endurance and quiet self-confidence. Three years ago, when his party’s approval ratings were near record highs, he told the New York Times that the Social Democrats would win the next election.
Like Ms Merkel, he has a reputation for being a safe pair of hands and a decent person with a bipartisan aura.
“Merkel is beyond party politics, she is the voice of reason,” said Mr Alexander, who has written a bestselling book on the end of the Merkel era. “Being at the center of politics as a person is what Merkel has done in a brilliant way and that is what Scholz is aiming for.”
This political flexibility can now make him the perfect leader to take on what could be his ongoing challenge as chancellor – keeping the peace in an unusual and untested three-way coalition with two ideologically divergent parties: the progressive Greens, who want to spend. 50 billion euros, or about 56 billion dollars, on a green transition, and the pro-market free democrats, who will control the Ministry of Finance and with it the purse strings.
But it also risks not satisfying anyone. Observers say how engrossed Mr Scholz is in having to balance conflicting demands in his country could affect his ability to push forward his government’s ambitious agenda to prepare Germany for a neutral future by carbon and a digital age.
This will also determine the important role that Germany can play abroad. If Mr Scholz is too distracted by internal tensions, Europe and the world will inevitably feel the loss of Merkel’s leadership, analysts predict.
But if all goes well, Mr Scholz’s Germany could prove to be a pivotal power for European cohesion, for more transatlantic unity in the fight against climate change and for facing strategic competitors like China and Russia, and, some hope, for a rebirth of social democracy in different parts of the world.
Foreign policy was barely discussed during the election campaign, but with the pandemic, it may well end up dominating the first months of the new administration. Germany takes over Presidency of the Group of 7 in January and Mr Scholz will immediately be pointed out on a host of pressing international issues.
He has an apparent center-left ally in President Biden. Since former President Bill Clinton’s second term, the White House and the German Chancellery have not been in the hands of center-left leaders.
But no one in Berlin relies too much on Washington.
“We don’t know how reliable the Biden administration is and we don’t know how long it will be in power,” Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations said.
One of Mr. Scholz’s advisers put it more bluntly: “Biden is America first, just more polite.”
As a result, Scholz will focus his energy on strengthening the European Union, according to his advisers. His first visit abroad will be to President Emmanuel Macron in France, who will face his own difficult election campaign next year. Supporting Mr Macron, who takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January, is a goal.
“We will talk a lot more about European sovereignty. We will sound more French. But in reality, it will be difficult to make it a real policy, ”said Puglierin.
Few analysts expect the new Chancellor to change course significantly from Merkel, who took him to her last Group of 20 meeting last month and introduced him to a number of leaders world leaders, including President Biden.
“Don’t expect too many changes” Nils Schmid, Social Democrats foreign policy spokesperson, said last weekend.
For those of Germany’s allies hoping for a much firmer stance on China and Russia and increased military spending, this promise of continuity may be only partly reassuring.
But with so many international fires and some structural geopolitical changes underway, the circumstances – and his more hawkish coalition partners – could force the hand of the new chancellor, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
One of the first tests Mr Scholz will face is how to deal with Poland, which has violated some of the democratic principles of EU membership but is also under pressure from neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally. who channeled migrants to the Polish border in an apparent attempt to destabilize the bloc.
Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats are traditionally accommodating to Russia, supporting projects like the pipeline that divides Nordstream II. But if Moscow launched a new offensive in Ukraine, that would be another important test.
In China, the picture is more complicated.
The Social Democrats have signaled that Mr Scholz will not become hawkish overnight and close ranks with the United States.
“If you look at Merkel’s Chinese policy, I think Olaf Scholz will be more similar to this than American policy towards China,” said Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democrats and close ally of Mr. Scholz.
But as Beijing has become more confrontational and German industry is more open to its dependence on the Chinese market, Germany’s Chinese policy is ripe to move away from the mercantilist soft touch of the Merkel era, analysts say. .
“Scholz has influence and he will gain more influence,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. “He has the potential to be a strong leader with an international reputation – as long as he keeps his coalition together.”