Merkel’s natural heir: How Olaf Scholz won Germany’s election

Angela Merkel’s decision to step down from German politics after 16 years as chancellor has left millions of votes at stake. In Sunday’s election, Olaf Scholz grabbed them with both hands – and won.

From the start of the campaign, Scholz, the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, stubbornly targeted the many Germans who had backed Merkel in the last four elections but had no strong allegiance to her Christian Democratic Union.

“It’s the Merkels Sozissaid a Scholz aide – people who “voted CDU/CSU while Merkel was in charge, but who could [now] consider voting SPD or Green”.

“These are people who appreciate Merkel’s simplicity, her good sense of humor, her composure – and see exactly the same qualities in Olaf,” he added.

The approach paid off, with spectacular results. Just a few months ago, the SPD was languishing around 15% in the polls. On Sunday, he won the election with 25.7% of the vote, and the CDU/CSU collapsed with the worst result in its history.

Throughout the campaign, Scholz had stressed that this election would be different from those that preceded it. For the first time in Germany’s post-war history, an incumbent chancellor did not stand for re-election. His belief was that Merkel stepping down meant voters would choose the most qualified candidate to succeed her, regardless of party.

Speaking to the Financial Times in June, Scholz said that in this year’s election the focus would be less on who had the best policies and more on “who do we want to run the country”. Most voters, he said, would ultimately decide it should be him.

Resume: Olaf Scholz

Born June 14, 1958

1977-1984 After studying in Hamburg, studied law at the city’s university

Olaf Scholz, right, with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2004 © Getty Images

1985 qualified as a lawyer

1998 Elected to the Bundestag

2001 Served as interior minister of the city-state of Hamburg

2007-09 Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs

2009-18 Deputy Chairman of the SPD and acting chairman for three months in 2018

2011-18 Mayor of Hamburg

March 2018 Appointed Federal Minister of Finance

Scholz turned out to be right. He was able to present himself as the natural successor to Merkel, although he came from another party. The virtues classically attributed to Merkel – pragmatism, sobriety, reliability and a wealth of experience in office – seemed to magically transfer from the chancellor to her finance minister.

“Scholz was able to slip into the starting role,” said Andrea Römmele, professor of political communication at the Hertie School in Berlin.

Merkel’s decision to step down also lifted a curse that had plagued the SPD for years. As a junior partner in its “grand coalition” for the past eight years, it has played a decisive role in shaping policy: it was thanks to the SPD that Germany introduced a minimum wage in 2015, example. But voters have routinely rewarded Merkel, not the Social Democrats, for those successes.

That changed this year. “Because Merkel was no longer running, the SPD was able to take credit for all her achievements in government – something the Chancellor would have claimed for herself had she run,” Römmele said.

Olaf Scholz and Chancellor Angela Merkel during a cabinet meeting in January 2020
Olaf Scholz and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a cabinet meeting in January 2020 © Hayoung Jeon/EPA/Shutterstock

Scholz’s other important idea was that changes in the German political landscape might ultimately benefit the SPD more than its conservative rival. Asked this summer how he thought the Social Democrats might recover in the polls, he expressed a confidence that seemed misplaced at the time but, in retrospect, was justified.

“The days of one party getting 40% or more of the vote are over,” he told the FT. “We have a multi-party system where major parties have far fewer seats than before – and that means only minor changes in voter behavior can create completely new constellations.”

It was a premonitory vision. Scholz now envisions an SPD-led three-party coalition, the first in Germany since the 1950s.

Scholz’s path to the top was not easy. Unloved in his own party, the former federal labor minister and mayor of Hamburg suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2019 SPD leadership race, losing to two little-known leftists.

Many social democrats distrust him, identifying him with the controversial labor and welfare reforms led by Gerhard Schröder, the last social democrat chancellor, under whom Scholz served as general secretary of the SPD.

Saskia Esken, one of the two people who defeated him in 2019, even questioned in a television interview that year whether Scholz was a “true unwavering social democrat”.

Yet, despite the party’s mistrust, he nominated Scholz as his candidate for chancellor in August last year. At the time, the SPD was rock bottom in the polls and few party members expected it to be able to turn the tide. Cynics said party leftists see him as a convenient scapegoat if the SPD suffers a landslide election defeat.

Some in Berlin also said the decision to appoint Scholz came far too soon – more than a year before the election. Still, it turned out to be a smart move.

“That meant we could create a custom campaign exactly tailored to Scholz,” said SPD MP Jens Zimmermann. “We could come up with a really good, well-thought-out action plan.”

Scholz hardly made a mistake, unlike his rivals. CDU/CSU candidate Armin Laschet saw his results plummet after laughing during a visit to flood-stricken areas. Annalena Baerbock, the green candidate, had to fight accusations of plagiarism and embellishment of her CV.

Scholz, on the other hand, came across as a seasoned politician who people said they could trust. He has been credited with skillfully steering Germany’s public finances during the pandemic.

He also ran a stripped-back campaign based on simple promises: a higher minimum wage, stable pensions, more affordable housing and a carbon-neutral economy.

And all the while, the SPD – a rambunctious party long troubled by infighting – solidly backed its candidate. “We haven’t been this united in years,” Zimmermann said.

Running such a personalized campaign so narrowly centered on Scholz, the politician could have turned against him. But it seems to have paid off.

Franziska Reisener, a retiree, was one of dozens of people who gathered in Potsdam last Saturday to hear her final campaign speech. She said she would vote for the SPD, largely based on her faith in Scholz. “He is by far the most credible candidate of the three,” she said. “He’s the one who will get things done.”

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