On Monday, more than one year ahead of the next general elections in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) appointed Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as the party’s candidate for chancellor. But even with Angela Merkel certain not to run again, could he really be the leader of the European Union’s largest country?
Scholz’s current position as finance minister and deputy to Chancellor Merkel puts him in a very good position — at least on paper. He has been in charge of doling out the billions of euros in emergency funds to tide the German economy through the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, and he was also the government’s face and problem-solver in these difficult times.
“This is the bazooka that’s needed to get the job done,” Scholz said. “We are putting all our weapons on the table to show that we are strong enough to overcome any economic challenge that this problem might pose.”
And Germans do appreciate his performance. His approval ratings have remained steadily high during the months of the pandemic. But will this be enough?
Who is Scholz?
A lawyer by training, the 62-year-old Scholz was the mayor of the affluent northwest German city of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018 before he was appointed minister of finance in March 14, 2018 after months of coalition negotiations.
Back in 2003, German weekly Die Zeit nicknamed him the “Scholzomat” on account of his technocratic lingo. Since then, however, he has realized that a politician’s job is not only about performance but also public perception, and he has become a more approachable and candid figure, which has earned him the SPD’s leadership in 2018.
SPD is Scholz’s main weakness
The party’s Secretary-General, Lars Klingbeil, stands firmly behind Scholz, but the party itself might just be the biggest obstacle to his leadership bid. Ever since then incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, also of the SPD, lost the 2005 general elections to Angela Merkel, the SPD has been unable to field a worthy opponent to Merkel. The SPD has also developed close ties with the Greens and Die Linke, with Die Linke advocating democratic socialism.
Recent municipal elections in Germany, which saw the three-party coalition win several important positions, were not attributable to the SPD which has in fact lost support and now stands around 15 percent. It is also highly questionable whether the party’s rank and file will unite behind him, given how there is a strong current among them for a more left-wing agenda, while Scholz himself belongs to the conservative wing of his party.
Leader of Europe?
Stepping out of German domestic politics — the other major parties have yet to announce their candidates — the main question is whether Scholz could even fill the admittedly large shoes of Merkel. Ever since he became the president of France, Emmanuel Macron has been consistent in his attempts to position himself as the new leader of Europe. While currently he really has no choice but play second fiddle to Merkel, if Germany wants to maintain its leading role in the European Union — and few doubt that to be the case — any future leader of the country would need a stronger domestic background than Scholz’s SPD and its allies, the Greens and the Linke, can provide.
Title image: German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Olaf Scholz announces that he will run for the Social Democratic Party as chancellor candidate at next year’s general elections in Germany.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)