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BERLIN — Germany’s Social Democrats nominated Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate for chancellor in next year’s general election, settling on a centrist figure the beleaguered party hopes can take advantage of the vacuum that will follow Angela Merkel’s retirement.
The former Hamburg mayor lost a bid to lead the party last year, but Scholz, 62, has long been the most popular Social Democrat among the public, often second only to Merkel among German politicians.
“I want to win,” a smiling Scholz told reporters in Berlin after the announcement Monday.
Germany’s political conventional wisdom holds that the Christian Democrats will once again prevail in the coming election, even assuming that Merkel, their longtime standard-bearer, sticks to her pledge not to seek another term as chancellor. A victory for the party is widely expected to lead to a coalition with the resurgent Greens, in what would be a first for the country.
Nonetheless, the decision by the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s current junior coalition partners, to select the popular Scholz increases the chances — however slightly — of an election surprise.
As finance minister, Scholz has received high marks, especially for his management of the emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The move to tap Scholz, which was taken by the SPD’s leadership Monday morning, had long been rumored, but the timing was unexpected. Germany’s next election won’t take place until sometime in the fall of next year, leaving Scholz in campaign mode, not to mention the spotlight, for more than a year.
It’s a risky strategy for a party whose last two chancellor candidates (Peer Steinbrück, a former finance minister, in 2013, followed by Martin Schulz, ex-president of the European Parliament, in 2017) were also announced well in advance of the election only to see their campaigns run out of steam, leading to crushing defeats that left the once-mighty party in a prolonged state of turmoil.
With Merkel stepping away and her party yet to select its own candidate, the SPD appears to be betting that it can establish the soft-spoken Scholz as the sober voice of experience and reason — in other words, as the next-best thing to Merkel.
The Christian Democrats (CDU), currently in the midst of a leadership race, aren’t expected to settle on a candidate until December, at the earliest. None of those in the running can match Scholz’s experience, however. (Scholz’s Merkel-like demeanor and image have already earned him the moniker “Vati,” or daddy, a play on references to Merkel as “Mutti,” the reassuring mother of the nation.)
As finance minister, Scholz has received high marks, especially for his management of the emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, which left millions of Germans in temporary work programs and relying on government assistance.
Though Scholz’s selection makes tactical sense, it’s also a deviation from the SPD’s recent leftward course. Last year Scholz lost the SPD’s leadership contest, which was decided by a party-wide vote, to two leftist candidates, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, neither of whom were prominent figures in the party. Scholz and his running mate were the establishment favorites, but Esken and Walter-Borjans prevailed with the rank and file by arguing that SPD needed a course of radical renewal. They accused Scholz and other SPD leaders of betraying the party’s socialist roots.
The main object of their ire was the so-called Agenda 2010, a set of economic reforms passed from 2003-2005 under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that cut welfare benefits and relaxed labor market rules. While many economists attribute Germany’s economic revival in the decade that followed to the program, the SPD’s base complained that the measures triggered social decline. The man who led the push to enact the reforms: the SPD’s then general secretary, Olaf Scholz.
That the party’s new leftist leadership would support the candidacy of a man they say was largely responsible for the party’s recent misery is characteristic of what some outsiders call the SPD’s “schizophrenia.” That’s why the main threat to Scholz’s candidacy could well emerge from the SPD’s own ranks, in particular the party’s vocal left wing.
Many in the SPD blame the party’s woes on its long-standing alliance with the Christian Democrats, known as the “grand coalition,” for which the moderate Scholz is the de facto poster boy. Leftists in the party argue the partnership has left the SPD looking like a cheap copy of the CDU without its own profile or agenda, especially after Merkel moved the Christian Democrats to the left, dominating a space long occupied by the SPD.
Though the new SPD leadership agreed to keep the party in the grand coalition after their surprise victory, they make no secret of their distaste for it.
Even so, most Germans — 64 percent, according to a benchmark poll released last week — support the grand coalition because it provides the stability and social consensus they prize.
Voter support for the SPD has deteriorated to such an extent, however, that another grand coalition could well be out of reach. Recent polls put the SPD at around 14 percent, down from 20.5 percent in the last election. That leaves the SPD in third place behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats, with 38 percent, and the Greens, with 18 percent.
The SPD was neck and neck with the conservatives above 30 percent as recently as 2017, but has since suffered a historic collapse following Schulz’s fumbled campaign for chancellor, persistent infighting in its ranks and a surge by the Greens, which most observers now regard as the future dominant force on Germany’s left.
On Monday, Scholz vowed to take the party back “well above 20 percent.”
But even the SPD’s own leadership appears to have concluded that its best days are behind it.
Esken, an outspoken figure who pays little heed to political convention, told German public television on Sunday that if need be, she would support a leftist coalition under a Green chancellor. The only time the Greens have been in a federal coalition was as the SPD’s junior partner.
She said the party wouldn’t let “vanity” get in the way of doing what was right for Germany, a remark critics said undercut Scholz’s candidacy before it even began. To secure a majority, such a constellation would also have to include Die Linke, the successor to former East Germany’s communist party. Esken said a three-way coalition with Die Linke would be “possible and something to consider.” Though the SPD governs with Die Linke (and the Greens) in regional administrations, including in Berlin, the former communists, who are currently polling around 8 percent, have never been part of a national government.
Scholz stressed on Monday that Die Linke, which opposes Germany’s NATO membership and is deeply critical of the EU, would have to embrace the SPD’s views on Europe and foreign policy before the parties could cooperate.
Unless German support for the dominant Christian Democrats collapses after Merkel’s exit, that’s a concession the Left is unlikely to have to make.