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At last, a government that wants to govern

Felix Steiner
Felix Steiner
December 8, 2021

The 16-year Merkel era is over. Social Democrat Olaf Scholz has been sworn in as Germany’s new chancellor. But if he doesn't deliver, the new coalition may prove just a brief episode, warns Felix Steiner.

Olaf Scholz being sworn in as German chancellor
Olaf Scholz is sworn in as Germany's new chancellorImage: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes, even a commentator has to admit he was wrong. Today is one such day. Four weeks before the federal election, having predicted that protracted coalition negotiations would follow,I wrote that Germans could take this in their stride, as the country functioned pretty well even without a proper government.

This was true of the experience of politicians trying to form a government four years ago, when the process took almost six months. But it proved fundamentally wrong in the middle of a pandemic. Because, although virologists had been warning about precisely this scenario since early summer, Germany skidded straight into the fourth wave during the final phase of the election campaign, and things only got worse in the weeks after the vote – yet no one seemed to care.

Lethargic and preoccupied

The old government, which for the past two months was only acting as caretaker, showed little ambition anymore, and appeared lethargic – as it so often did in the previous legislative period. Meanwhile, the new coalition was mainly preoccupied with itself, and trying to find common ground. Consequently, some extravagant, bad decisions were made, like closing the vaccination centers (as if no one was anticipating urgently needed booster vaccinations), or public consideration of a "Freedom Day." And the German parliament decided to end the "pandemic state of emergency" – as if it was all over now.

Instead, the current situation is alarming. Following record numbers of new infections, the number of deaths is now rising sharply again, as well. The new federal government has realized that things cannot go on like this and is suddenly acting decisively and with urgency. Parliament is set to approve a vaccine mandate for special occupational groups on Friday, and it seems certain that a general vaccine mandate will be introduced next spring.

Felix Steiner
DW editor Felix Steiner

However, in doing this, Olaf Scholz's government is pursuing a path for which it – and politics in general – will pay a heavy price in terms of public trust. During the election campaign, and even afterwards, all the parties and top candidates bar none promised that there definitely would not be a vaccine mandate. So a potential radicalization of opponents of vaccination could soon present the new government with a very specific challenge.

Will another SPD chancellor have to go to war?

A second, potentially very unpleasant challenge for the new German government lurks in eastern Europe. How will Germany react if Vladimir Putin actually follows through and orders his troops deployed on Ukraine's eastern border to attack the neighboring country? They say that history doesn't repeat itself. But the situation is very reminiscent of spring 1999, when a new Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor and a Green foreign minister, of all people, sent the Bundeswehr on a war mission for the first time since 1945. Then, too, during the Kosovo War, the mission was to protect a people who did not automatically benefit from NATO's obligations to provide assistance.

In view of these urgent problems, the plans that the coalition, which wants to "dare more progress,"  presented for major reform have taken a back seat for the moment. In any case, once Germans realize what the fight against climate change – the most pressing issue for the majority, according to polls – means in concrete terms for their prosperity and standard of living, it will become apparent just how strong their enthusiasm for it is. Because it won't be enough for the government simply to make decisions whose effects no one will notice. At least, that will not achieve climate neutrality.

How long before the shooting star fades?

Olaf Scholz's election as chancellor is the surprise of the year. Six months ago, hardly anyone (myself included) would have bet on it. And in the weeks since the election, the outgoing conservative Christian Democrats have underlined the fact that they are currently in no fit state to govern. Nonetheless, Scholz would do well to remember that the SPD's lead in the parliamentary elections, the basis for his chancellorship, was only wafer-thin. It can quickly be lost again.

Over the past 50 years, the Germans have re-elected every coalition, and every chancellor, at least once. But it's not something the new government can take for granted. No – Scholz and his cabinet now have to deliver. Otherwise, the current coaltion will be just a brief episode.