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The unlikely savior of Germany's SPD

September 27, 2021

It's time to take a fresh look at the man who revived the SPD. Often likened to a robot, he has never really been popular within his own party. But now he might head the next German government.

Happy Olaf Scholz after the election
Olaf Scholz has managed to impress German voters with his calm demeanorImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

As Olaf Scholz, the SPD chancellor candidate, took the stage at his party headquarters on election night, he was met by cheers and a banner saying "Thank you." He had just achieved what had seemed impossible not so long ago: He had lifted the Social Democrats out of the low polling numbers it had been witnessing for years.

Back in the spring, the party was polling at 15%. Now it looks to have won 25.7% of the vote. It has been a fantastic game of catch-up.

But the door to the chancellery isn't open yet. Who will govern Germany will only become clear after the coalition negotiations that will unfold in the coming weeks and months. Despite the SPD's lead in the polls, the conservative CDU/CSU could still form the government if they forge an alliance with the Greens and neoliberal FDP. 

An election poster showing Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz became the SPD's big selling pointImage: Karina Hessland/imago images

SPD has a lot to thank Scholz for 

Scholz, Scholz, always Scholz. During the election campaign, the SPD focused primarily on its candidate. He dominated the posters, he stood center stage and he took part in the political debates. The Social Democrats' campaign revolved entirely around the 63-year-old. 

The image the SPD wanted to convey of him was that of a level-headed statesman with robust government experience. They wanted him to seem like the natural successor to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, who did not stand for re-election after 16 years. Scholz has been the finance minister in Merkel's Cabinet since 2018 and is also the vice chancellor in the current governing coalition consisting of the CDU/CSU and SPD. He — like Merkel — will remain in his current office until a new government is in place.

Candidate of a party that didn't want him as leader

But how much of a Social Democrat is Scholz really? It seems like a strange question, but the answer requires a look at the party's recent past. In 2019, Scholz wanted to become SPD chairman. However, in a membership vote, he lost out to Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who had promised to move the SPD further to the left. 

Norbert Walter-Borjans, Olaf Scholz and Saskia Esken smiling into the camera
Scholz lost to Norbert Walter-Borjans (left) and Saskia Esken (right) in the race for SPD party chairImage: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek

Scholz has always been seen as belonging to the more conservative wing of the SPD. That made it all the more surprising when Esken and Walter-Borjans nominated him as the party's chancellor candidate in August 2020. In the end, the SPD opted for a chancellor candidate it had not wanted as party leader. 

Rolling with the punches 

When he was chosen as the candidate, Scholz said he and the party leadership worked together closely and harmoniously. "We actually started cooperating closely with each other right after the election of the SPD chairpersons, and a very close trust grew from that, so that at some point I felt like the two of them would propose me, and the two of them also felt very early on that they should propose me," he said. 

Such a sentence exemplifies how Scholz deals with crises: he gets up, continues undeterred and never doubts himself. He seems blessed with unshakable self-confidence. In his decadeslong political career, he has experienced many a blow, but none that threw him off course for long. 

Olaf Scholz looking unemotional
Scholz is famous for putting on an expressionless faceImage: Sebastian Gollnow/Pool/dpa/picture alliance

Sober and pragmatic works during a crisis 

Not even the Cum Ex tax scandal and the Wirecard fraud case were able to derail Scholz. Although he didn't come off looking good in the inquiry committees in parliament, neither cases had any political consequences — he always knew how to let accusations roll off his back. He pulled off the trick once again one week before the Bundestag election in a special session of the Finance Committee dealing with errors in supervising the FIU anti-money laundering unit.

During the COVID pandemic Scholz, as finance minister, has stood for the billions the government has provided in aid. He also knew how to use that to put himself in the spotlight time and again. "It is the bazooka with which we are now doing what is necessary," he promised in the spring of 2020, immediately after the pandemic reached Germany.

'No one need be afraid'

Since the pandemic began, Scholz's motto has been that Germany can financially cope with the crisis. By 2022, Germany will have taken on €400 billion ($467 billion) in new debt. Scholz promised during the election campaign that Germany would be able to grow its way out of debt. "No one need be afraid of this, we've already managed it once, after the last crisis in 2008/2009, and we'll manage it again in just under 10 years," he said. 

He took the same approach to climate protection. The Greens have some good ideas, he maintains, but they can only be implemented with the help of the SPD. "Pragmatic, but oriented toward the future" is how Scholz sums up his program. 

Olaf Scholz promises to 'implement decisions to meet more ambitious renewable energy targets'

In foreign policy, Scholz stands for continuity. Under his leadership, Germany would work for a "strong, sovereign Europe" that speaks "with one voice," "because otherwise, we won't play a role," he said. With the global population poised to reach 10 billion, there will be "many powers in the future, not only China, the US, and Russia," but also many Asian countries. He sees cooperation with the United States and NATO as a fundamental principle. 

This message apparently went down well with the general public. In uncertain times, pragmatism is more in demand than charisma. Charisma is certainly something Scholz lacks. He doesn't know how to express himself or show emotion. Even in moments of great joy, he shows all the restraint of a British butler. 

It took Scholz a long time to learn that politics is also about putting himself and his message in the spotlight and being able to sell both well. During the election campaign, he appeared more approachable, friendlier and closer to people. He even changed his gestures and facial expressions. 

Olaf Scholz and Gerhard Schröder smiling
Scholz (left) became labor minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2002Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

A stealthy but efficient rise to the top

For many years, he was known by the name "Scholzomat," a play on the words "Scholz" and "Automat" or machine.

The weekly newspaper Die Zeit coined the term in 2003 because Scholz, then SPD secretary-general, had a habit of defending labor market reform in repetitive technocratic speech formulas.

"I was the salesman of the message. I had to display a certain relentlessness," Scholz later said. 

The introverted, business-oriented pragmatist from Hamburg, who only says as much as is absolutely necessary, did not have an easy time with the SPD. When he ran for party office, Scholz usually got the worst results. Nevertheless, he managed to silently and efficiently work his way up the political ladder. 

From critic of capitalism to federal finance minister 

In the process, Scholz underwent a remarkable political transformation. As deputy chairman of the SPD youth organization Jusos, he was still a radical socialist in the 1980s, promoting "the overcoming of the capitalist economy." But through his work as a labor law lawyer with his own firm in Hamburg, he learned a lot about business and entrepreneurship. That experience shaped him. 

Scholz was SPD secretary-general, federal labor minister, state interior minister and governing mayor of Hamburg before becoming finance minister in 2018. He wants to govern with the Greens and with the FDP — but he will also be courted by the CDU/CSU. Who will win the race in the end — and whether Scholz will move into the chancellery — will only become clear in the coming weeks, as exploratory talks get underway.

Interview with chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz

This article has been translated from German. It was first published in April 2021 and has been updated to reflect recent developments.

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