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Halftime review for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

July 16, 2023

Politics in Berlin is officially on summer vacation. But behind the scenes, conflicts within the governing coalition under Chancellor Scholz continue to rumble on — and voters aren't happy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pictured at the annual summer press in Berlin on July 14, 2023.
With unshakable self-confidence, Chancellor Olaf Scholz faced reporters at the annual summer press conference in Berlin on July 14Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa

The chancellor's annual summer press conference was filled to the rafters in the German capital on Friday as Olaf Scholz sat down to field questions from journalists.

The Berlin press conference is a tradition: former Chancellor Angela Merkel used to spend more than an hour-and-a-half answering questions on all kinds of issues once a year.

Germany's government was elected to the Bundestag two years ago this September. And halfway through the four-year term, the report card doesn't look great for the ruling coalition made up of the center-left SPD, environmentalist Greens and neoliberal FDP, at least according to opinion polls.

Three out of four Germans are less or not at all satisfied with the work of the federal government. Since the fall of 2022, opinion polls have suggested that Germany's ruling coalition would no longer have a majority if fresh elections were to take place today.

The SPD, Scholz's party, has fallen to third place in opinion polls behind the center-right CDU/CSU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Approval ratings for the Greens are at their lowest in five years. The smallest coalition partner, the FDP, has lost a third of its support since the last general election.

How Scholz sees the future

But none of this bad news seems to worry the German chancellor. "I'm quite confident that the AfD won't do any better in the next general election than it did in the last one," he said at Friday's press conference.

He's optimistic about the fate of his own party, too. "This government will get a new mandate," he told public broadcaster ARD with a view to the 2025 Bundestag election, without a flicker of concern.

He consistently refers to the right-wing populists of the AfD as a "bad-mood party" whose popularity surges only during crises. "The climate crisis is coming to a head; war is back in Europe; the global balance of power is shifting," the chancellor told the Bundestag in March. "These are the challenges the federal government is taking on. This great upheaval will end well for us — and badly for the AfD, because [its] line of work will be gone."

Demonstrators at an AfD rally for energy security curbs on inflation.
The AfD has taken up the issue of energy security in a bid to appeal to angry votersImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Scholz is blessed with seemingly unshakable self-confidence. Keep calm and carry on — and never doubt yourself: That's how the 65-year-old has been doing politics for over three decades.

Critics say he often comes across as a smart aleck, especially when challenged. He appears utterly convinced that his policies are logical — and therefore correct. When questioned, Scholz can occasionally seem condescending.

"If I could really be bothered to refute the whole list of incorrect assertions, I wouldn't have any time left," he said during a grilling from Bundestag members before the summer recess. 

In the SPD, they call that clear and strong leadership. For others, it borders on arrogance. Scholz is a master of letting questions bounce off him, often giving vague and convoluted answers, his tone always calm and monotonous. Not for nothing is he nicknamed the "Scholzomat" on account of his robotic style of delivery.

But Scholz can do things differently when he wants to — at least according to his fellow SPD parliamentarians. It's said that he's much much more passionate when arguing with colleagues behind the scenes. Unfortunately, he rarely lets that side show in public, some in his party have said.

Tanks instead of wind turbines

Scholz won't allow his feathers to be ruffled with regard to the coalition, either. When the three parties entered office together, they promised "new beginnings and progress" and said they would quickly tackle key projects in the areas of climate protection, digitization and economic transformation.

Scholz: 'Security is a major challenge'

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Scholz's much-noted "turning point" ("Zeitenwende") speech shortly afterwards shifted priorities. Instead of building 400,000 homes a year and five wind turbines a day, €100 billion ($112 billion) was spent on the German armed forces and billions more on finding alternatives to Russian gas and providing financial relief for citizens hit by the cost-of-living crisis.

In 2022, Germany took in more than a million refugees from Ukraine alone. Ukraine is also receiving significant humanitarian aid and weapons support, closely coordinated with the US and the EU, although the chancellor was initially accused of being too hesitant to act.

British historian Timothy Garton Ash won some attention earlier this year by coining the term "scholzing," meaning the act of "communicating good intentions, only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them from happening."

Scholz still says Ukraine must not lose — and not that it must win, but his fundamental position is now clear.

Rarely has a federal government been confronted with so many major crises all at the same time. The three-party coalition mastered its first year in government with impressive unity. But then party-political rivalries bubbled up to the surface.

Too much divides them: The SPD and the Greens are center-left parties that advocate for a state that regulates more and supports the socially disadvantaged. The neoliberal FDP, on the other hand, wants as little state intervention as possible.

As the pressure mounts from lost elections in the federal states and falling popularity ratings, it has become more and more important for each party to set itself apart from the others.

The Greens don't want to compromise on climate and environmental protection, while the FDP has the interests of the free market in mind. This inevitably leads to coalition infighting and roadblocks in the already difficult process of governing.

Who's really setting the agenda?

On a range of issues, such as the planned transition to carbon-free heating in Germany, budget cuts or child benefits, the coalition seems unable to agree.

The FDP insists on not incurring any new debt from 2024, something it aims to achieve through massive budget cuts — raising taxes for the rich is out of the question for the neoliberals.

The SPD chancellor often remains invisible amid the squabbles, which has also earned criticism from some quarters. The Greens have accused Scholz of sitting back as the FDP attempts to raise its own profile. The SPD base wants to see the FDP reined in.

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, rigth, and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy address a media conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, May 14, 2023.
Scholz still says that Ukraine must not lose, not that it must winImage: Matthias Schrader/AP Photo/picture alliance

A chancellor, not a cowboy

But Scholz remains steadfastly Scholz. He's no John Wayne, he once said in an interview with ARD, alluding to the actor who played the cowboy hero in old Westerns.

He said characters like those often played by Wayne are perhaps "the standard model that some people find great" when it comes to political leadership — that of a strong and steady individual who can stand up to all others. But things don't really work like that, he said.

"In actual fact, this is a family of three parties and over 80 million citizens who all have an opinion on the many issues on the path to a successful future," Scholz said. And, he added, an authoritarian patriarch wouldn't be a good fit for that modern family.

This article was originally written in German.

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