SPD candidate for German chancellor: Olaf Scholz — pragmatism over personality | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.08.2020
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SPD candidate for German chancellor: Olaf Scholz — pragmatism over personality

Olaf Scholz is the Social Democrats' candidate as German chancellor to succeed Angela Merkel. There is no doubting his experience — and he is known for his ability to handle a crisis. But many say something is missing.

Things could hardly be going any better for Olaf Scholz and it's largely down to his response to the coronavirus crisis. As finance minister, he is in charge of disbursing the billions of euro in emergency funds to help the economy and the country's citizens weather the storm. 

"This is the bazooka that's needed to get the job done," promised Scholz, with a mixture of cold efficiency and supercilious confidence. "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." 

Read more: What happens if Angela Merkel can't work?

Scholz has been the head fireman in the coronavirus inferno — and voters approve of his performance so far. His approval ratings have stayed steadily high for weeks and months. At times of crisis, pragmatism trumps charisma and that has played into the 62-year-old's hands.  

The charm of a robot

It's a far cry from 2003 when the German weekly Die Zeit nicknamed him "Scholzomat", a combination of his name and "Automat", the German word for "machine", alluding to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) general secretary's tendency to use technocratic jargon. 

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Olaf Scholz: 'A new era is beginning'

This machine's job is to continue selling the SPD's policies. It all started with the controversial labor market reform program known as 2010, which brought with it harsh cuts for some welfare recipients. Scholz found himself defending the program both outside and inside his party.  

"I was the man tasked with selling the message. I had to demonstrate a certain amount of implacability," Scholz would say later, adding that he "really felt like an officer. There was no leeway.”  

He said his first concern was not his own sensibilities but the need to display "absolute loyalty" to the then-chancellor and SPD leader, Gerhard Schröder, and to the SPD itself.

"I was trying not to save myself but to save my party." 

Olaf Scholz and Gerhard Schröder smiling (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick)

Olaf Scholz became labor minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2002

A thankless task 

In the end, the rescue efforts failed. Not only did the SPD lose the chancellery to the CDU, but Olaf Scholz gained an image that would take some time to shake off: that of a boring bureaucrat and killjoy. 

Within the SPD, plenty of people had difficulty warming to this rather introverted, matter-of-fact pragmatist from Hamburg who would never say more than what was absolutely necessary.  

But Scholz stuck to his guns, quietly climbing the political ladder. He was SPD general secretary, state interior minister and mayor of Hamburg, and is currently German finance minister and deputy chancellor.  

Olaf Scholz is considered a member of the party's conservative wing — but he's also hard to pin down with political categories such as left-wing or right-wing. As deputy leader of the SPD youth organization Jusos,many of his views were socially radical and highly critical of capitalism.  

Olaf Scholz with Prinz William and Duchess Kate in Hamburg (Picture Alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt/dpa-Pool)

As the mayor of Hamburg Olaf Scholz also had the chance to welcome British Royals to the city

Learning the showbiz aspect 

But a long time has passed since Scholz joined the SPD as a high school student in 1975 and his election to the Bundestag in 1998. During those years, Scholz ran his own legal practice in Hamburg, specializing in business law, where he learned a lot about how the economy and entrepreneurship work. That left its mark.  

It took a long time for Olaf Scholz to acknowledge that politics is also about getting your message heard and selling your policies. But when the candidates for the SPD leadership toured the country debating each other in late 2019, the finance minister seemed transformed.  

Read more: Is socialism the future for Germany's ailing SPD?

His demeanor was more emotional, more accessible, and above all, friendlier. At the same time, he made no secret of his belief that he was in line for the job. But he suffered a shock defeat to the avowedly left-wing duo of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. 

But the old party trooper Scholz stood his ground. He stayed focused on his work in government and let the new SPD leaders get on with it. He remained loyal and never resorted to sniping — safe in the assumption that the new leadership, which was politically inexperienced by his standards, would make its own errors. The assumption proved correct and, in the end, there was no way around the experienced crisis manager Olaf Scholz. 

Protester hurling stones at water cannon (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Heine)

The G20 in Hamburg errupted in street violence which mayor Olaf Scholz had to handle

Now what for the SPD? 

Now all eyes are on how the grassroots respond. It was the party faithful who installed Esken and Walter-Borjans as joint leaders, in a clear vote for a more left-wing agenda. That will hardly happen with Olaf Scholz.  

It would not be the first time that the gulf between the party foot-soldiers and the officer class has been the SPD's downfall.