Who is Olaf Scholz, Germany’s next Chancellor?

BERLIN – Olaf Scholz succeeded in his campaign to become Germany’s next chancellor, mainly by convincing voters that he would be very similar to the tall and long-standing figure he will replace: Angela Merkel.

Mr. Not only did Scholz sound like the outgoing Conservative chancellor, he perfected the art of being consistent, well-informed and refraining from all triumphant gestures. embodies her aura of stability and calm to the point that he holds his hands together in her signature diamond shape.

“He’s like a football player who studied videos of another player and changed his game,” said Robin Alexander, a long-term political observer of both Merkel and Scholz. “From temperament and political style all the way down to facial expressions, Scholz now channels Merkel. If Scholz were a woman, he would wear trouser suits.”

When Scholz unveiled his new center-left government on Wednesday and is preparing to take office next month, a question for Germany and for the whole of Europe and the world is: Can he deliver and fill Merkel’s very big shoes?

Rarely has a German leader come to service with so many burning crises.

As soon as he is sworn in as chancellor in early December, Scholz will have to deal with one increasing pandemic, tensions on the Polish-Belarusian border, a Russian president mobilizing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, a more confrontational China and a less reliable United States.

“The pressure is enormous,” said Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The new government is taking on a situation that has warmed up on several fronts. And when it comes to foreign policy, Olaf Scholz is still a bit of a mystery.”

Which Olaf Scholz will appear as chancellor in two weeks’ time is in fact a matter of intense speculation. A lifelong Social Democrat, Mr Scholz, 63, has been a familiar face in German politics for more than two decades and has served for two governments led by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, most recently as her finance minister.

But he has also been something of a political chameleon, a pragmatic politician who borders on the left and the right so easily that it is sometimes difficult to know where he stands.

Scholz was born in Osnabrück in northern Germany and grew up in Hamburg, the city he would later lead as mayor. His grandfather was a railwayman, his parents worked in textiles. He and his brothers were the first in his family to go to university.

He was still in high school when he joined the Social Democrats. A fiery young socialist, he spent a decade as a labor lawyer defending workers threatened by factory closures. Then, as general secretary of his party under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s last center-left administration, he defended painful labor market reforms with a machine-like efficiency that earned him the nickname “Scholzo-mat”.

When he was first elected to parliament, he sat with his left wing in his party. Today, he is considered to be to the right of much of its base – not unlike President Biden of the United States, with whom he is sometimes compared.

But as with Biden, some see some left-wing reflexes.

Scholz lost his party’s leadership contest to a pair of leftists two years ago, but surprised and impressed some of his fiercest critics in his own party when he pulled out a hundreds of billions of euros bazooka in state aid to help struggling workers and businesses during the pandemic.

Some hope this – and his election campaign theme centered on respect for the working classes – was proof that the young idealist who turned into a post-ideological centrist might become more radical again in his 60s.

“The bazooka was a great moment,” said Kevin Kühnert, an outspoken leftist and one of the Social Democrats’ deputy leaders. “It was the delayed peace with his party. And it was the beginning of a deeper social transformation he hoped for.”

Scholz, who reportedly has lost 12 kilos, about 26 pounds, and stopped drinking alcohol before the election, has long been underestimated. He has always played a long game. His ambition to become chancellor dates back to 2011, according to a close ally.

Even political opponents talk admirably about his political instinct, his perseverance and quiet self-confidence. Three years ago, as his party’s approval rating hovered near record lows, he told The New York Times that the Social Democrats would win the next election.

Like Ms Merkel, he has a reputation for being a safe pair of hands and a decent person with a two-part aura.

“Merkel is beyond party politics, she is the voice of reason,” said Alexander, who wrote a best-selling book about the end of the Merkel era. “Being at the center of politics as a person, that’s what Merkel did so masterfully and that’s what Scholz is aiming for.”

Political flexibility can now make him the perfect leader to tackle what may be his continued challenge as chancellor – to keep the peace in an unusual and untested three-way coalition with two ideologically divergent parties: the progressive Greens, who want to spend 50 billion euros, or about $ 56 billion, on a green transition, and the pro-market Free Democrats, who will control the Treasury and with it the purse strings.

But Mr Scholz also runs the risk of not satisfying anyone. How busy he gets from having to balance conflicting demands at home, observers say, could affect his ability to push through his government’s ambitious agenda to prepare Germany for a carbon-neutral future and a digital age.

It will also determine how big a role Germany can play abroad. If Scholz becomes too distracted by internal tensions, Europe and the world will feel the loss of Merkel’s leadership, analysts predict.

But if things go smoothly, Scholz Germany could prove to be a key force for European cohesion, for more transatlantic unity in the fight against climate change and for confronting strategic competitors such as China and Russia, and, with some hope, for a revival of social democracy in different parts of the world.

Foreign policy was hardly discussed in the election campaign, but together with the pandemic, it may well end up dominating the first months of the new administration. Germany takes over the chairmanship of the group of 7 in January and Scholz will immediately focus on him on a number of pressing international issues.

He has a seemingly center-left ally in President Biden. Not since former President Bill Clinton’s second term has both the White House and the German Chancellery been in the hands of center-left leaders.

But no one in Berlin relies too much on Washington.

“We do not know how reliable the Biden administration is and we do not know how long it will be in power,” said Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

One of Mr. Scholz’s advisers put it more bluntly: “Biden is America First, only more polite.”

As a result, Scholz will focus his energy on strengthening the European Union, says his adviser. His first visit abroad will be President Emmanuel Macron in France, who is facing his own difficult election campaign next year. Supporting Macron, who will take over the EU rotating presidency in January, is a goal.

“A sovereign Europe is the key to our foreign policy,” Scholz said on Wednesday. “As the economically strongest and most populous country in the heart of Europe, it is our duty to make this sovereign Europe possible, to promote it and to promote it.”

Few analysts expect the new Chancellor to change course significantly from Merkel, who took him to his last meeting with Group 20 last month and introduced him to a number of world leaders, including President Biden.

“Do not expect too much change,” Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats, said this last weekend.

To those of Germany’s allies who hope for a much more robust attitude towards China and Russia and an increase in military spending, that promise of continuity can only be partially reassuring.

But with so many fires burning on the international stage and some structural geopolitical changes underway, circumstances – and his more hawkish coalition partners – could force the new chancellor’s hand, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.

One of the first tests that Scholz will face is how to deal with Poland, which has violated some of the democratic principles of EU membership but is also under pressure from neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally that has sent migrants to Poland. the limit in an obvious attempt to destabilize the block.

Scholz’s Social Democrats are traditionally a dove against Russia and support projects such as the splitting gas pipeline Nordstream II. But if Moscow launches another offensive in Ukraine, it would be another significant test.

In China, the picture is more complicated.

The Social Democrats have signaled that Scholz would not become hawkish overnight and end the lead with the United States.

“If you look at Merkel’s China policy, I think Olaf Scholz will be more like this than the US policy towards China,” Lars Klingbeil, the Social Democrats’ secretary general and a close ally of Scholz, said last month.

But as Beijing has become more confrontational and German industry more pronounced on its dependence on the Chinese market, Germany’s China policy is ripe to evolve from the Merkel era’s mercantilist soft touch, analysts say.

“Scholz has influence and he will have additional influence in the office,” says Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. “He has the potential to become a strong leader with an international standing – as long as he keeps his coalition together.”

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