Germany’s new centre-left leader Olaf Scholz has promised to expedite a Covid-19 vaccinate mandate as part of his government’s pushback against the country’s runaway fourth pandemic wave.
After winning September’s federal election, Mr Scholz was elected postwar Germany’s ninth federal chancellor on Wednesday.
In a secret Bundestag ballot, the 63-year-old received 395 votes out of a total of 707 MPs present, with 303 votes against and six abstentions. That was 21 short of the 416 seats occupied by his Social Democratic Party (SPD) with its Green and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partners.
With five MPs on sick leave, according to party officials, some 15 members of the untested three-way coalition declined to back Germany’s first SPD chancellor since Gerhard Schröder left office in 2005.
Despite the minor revolt, the grinning new leader was given thunderous applause and a standing ovation in the Bundestag chamber.
At the end of a long day of swearing-in formalities, Mr Scholz came together on Wednesday evening with his new cabinet.
With eight men and eight women, it is Germany’s most gender-balanced cabinet to date, with an ambitious plan that reflects each party’s main priorities: to boost welfare spending and speed up the battle against climate change – while rebalancing the post-pandemic budget and keeping taxes untouched. All of this comes in the middle of a €130 billion pandemic “bazooka” programme Mr Scholz triggered as finance minister, and inflation at a 30-year high.
At a time of unprecedented geopolitical tensions – in particular between Russia and Ukraine– the Scholz administration can expect no grace period.
But his top priority, Mr Scholz said in his first interview on Wednesday, is tackling the pandemic – and those accused of prolonging it. “We shouldn’t beat about the bush: we have our current problems because we a have a too-large group that, despite all recommendations, won’t get vaccinated,” he told Stern magazine.
Germany’s 69 per cent vaccination rate and struggling hospitals revealed a “bitter truth”, he said, that “a vaccine mandate is necessary”.
Before her final departure from the chancellery, Angela Merkel told her successor to “take charge of this house and work with it for the good of our country”; Mr Scholz thanked Dr Merkel for her “remarkable achievements”.
On Friday Mr Scholz makes his first trip as chancellor to Paris and Brussels. After that, he has promised a fast rollout of a €12 an hour minimum wage and start work on a “dependable plan to reshape the country within 25 years so that we can do business in a climate neutral way and remain an industrial nation”.
Political scientist Klaus Schubert predicted a busy new year in Germany with a chancellor at the peak of his powers.
“Germany is a difficult country to rule because, above all, people want peace, quiet and stability,” said Prof Schubert of the University of Münster. “The window of opportunity where change can happen here is always extremely narrow, but it’s always been a Social Democrat chancellor who uses it.”