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‘New Merkel variant’? High expectations as Scholz sworn in as chancellor.

At noon on Wednesday, when Olaf Scholz is sworn in as postwar Germany’s ninth chancellor, the country knows to expect the expected.

Last September the 63-year-old came from behind to win the federal election for his centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). His campaign had three winning promises: more generous welfare, more ambitious climate politics and, above all, continuity with the steady 16-year Angela Merkel era.

So great is their style overlap that the left-wing Taz newspaper pictured the new chancellor on its Saturday front page alongside the cheeky headline: “New Merkel variant asserts itself.”

At a time of growing political populism and jingoistic clownery elsewhere, Germany’s steady transition of power – even at this time of unprecedented crisis – has been remarkably stable and calm: a testimony to high public expectations, stable institutions and a mature political class.

That good example comes from the very top, with the baton passing today between two leaders who, though from ostensibly rival parties, have more that unites than divides them.

For 16 years, departing chancellor Angela Merkel drove many to distraction in her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for modernising her party towards the political centre.

Meanwhile, her SPD successor, Scholz, also her outgoing finance minister, had such a centrist reputation that many leftists in his party viewed him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was a remarkable achievement, therefore, for Scholz to deliver – and win nearly unanimous support of SPD members at the weekend – a coalition agreement that commits to a higher minimum wage and basic welfare payments, steady pensions and promises more social housing.

Competent image

He was able to deliver that coalition deal only because, 10 weeks previously, he won over German voters at the polls. He presented a carefully constructed campaign of images, messages and behaviour that all communicated competence in a way German voters want. In short, Scholz looked a chancellor before he was one.

So what do Germans expect their chancellors to look like? Last year, Der Spiegel magazine asked Scholz to re-read Politics as a Profession, an essay by German political theorist Max Weber, to mark the centenary of his death.

In the essay, Weber complains that bureaucracy-choked politics in German causes a “castration of charisma”.

The low-key Scholz begged to differ: “I am convinced that there are many different types of charisma, including a charisma of realism.”

Germans like stability, and politicians with an air of gritty realism. And that is what seasoned political observers expect from the head of Berlin’s first-ever “traffic-light coalition”, named after the colours of the SPD, Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

From Wednesday Scholz heads an alliance of parties with members ranging from left-wing climate radicals to right-wing neoliberals. The task of chancellor Scholz – a lawyer by profession – is to moderate political compromise similar to how Merkel did in a series of CDU-SPD grand coalitions.

“Scholz doesn’t bang on the table and say, ‘basta’, he moderates things towards solutions,” said Martin Fuchs, a Hamburg-based political consultant and long-time Scholz watcher. “We hope this coalition will bring innovation but, for the next two or three years, Scholz’s time in office will be dominated by crisis.”

After nearly a quarter century in public life – as MP and minister at federal level, and as a popular governing mayor of Hamburg – Scholz’s trademark has been understated demeanour, sober language and a calm – even dour – facial expression.

Never emotional

His non-verbal communication tells voters he is a true Hanseat – a son of the northern German trading tradition memorialised in the Thomas Mann novel Buddenbrooks. A true Hanseat is always analytical and predictable, never emotional or impulsive.

“Scholz communicates an air that people like, of honesty and dependability – in so far as that is possible in politics,” said Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist at the University of Münster. “I see a huge continuity with Merkel: like her, Scholz will be someone on whom its partners can depend.”

Without question Scholz sees himself as the political heir to Hamburg’s favourite son, the late Helmut Schmidt. The chain-smoking SPD chancellor showed grace under pressure in the 1970s, dealing with oil crises and far-left extremism while balanced on Europe’s cold war fault-line.

Even today, Schmidt’s 1980 defence of realpolitik remains legendary: “Anyone with visions should seek out a doctor.” But his take on political leadership is just as revealing: “With a lot of excitable chickens, someone has to take things in hand.”

On Tuesday, Scholz was asked at a press conference about how Europe will know that there’s a new chancellor in Berlin. Scholz flashed a rare smile but revealed nothing of how he plans to bring his brand of realistic charisma to Europe’s chicken coop.

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