At a recent discussion in Berlin, the moderator asked Olaf Scholz if he’d consider himself a laid-back person – fun, even. After his eyes flickered for half a second, the Social Democrat (SPD) who hopes to be Germany’s next chancellor answered: “That’s for others to decide.”
While voters in other countries are falling for narcissists, clowns, populists or all of the above in one, German voters are different.
From 2005, Angela Merkel secured four terms in power by reverse engineering and giving back what the electorate wanted: centrist certainty, rhetorical self-control, expert knowledge and emotional intelligence. As things look now Germans are in the mood, Berlin wags suggest, for Angela Merkel in drag.
The SPD is three points ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with 25 per cent in the most recent polls – though the gap is closing.
Asked to sum up their campaign, a grinning senior Scholz election team member told The Irish Times: “Merkel, just different.”
With Scholz as its front man, Germany’s once feuding Social Democratic Party (SPD) has transformed itself into a purring election machine. Just a year after German media outlets wrote off Scholz as an also-ran, with his SPD haemorrhaging support on 13 per cent in polls, how did the SPD turn things around?
Step one was to match the centrist Scholz with a centre-left programme and a young, diverse cast of new Bundestag candidates, in the hope this will all attract an equivalent spread of new voters.
Second, the SPD quietly distanced itself from its own three-term grand coalition run under Merkel, a remarkable conjuring trick given Scholz is her outgoing finance minister.
Third, the party emphasised continuity-but-change in a programme that splashes social justice and respect on CDU politics – no tax cuts for top earners – with a splash of market realism for Green proposals: a transition to a carbon-neutral economy that helps, rather than overwhelms, business.
His two watchwords – respect and realism – are all over the SPD manifesto. He wants a higher minimum wage and pension stability, in particular for frontline workers. Another proposal is an index-linked rent cap – at least until enough new apartments are built to ease Germany’s growing housing crisis.
“The corona crisis has shown us all on whose shoulders our society is built: the people who work hard and still benefit too little from economic upswings,” he told voters recently in Potsdam, near Berlin, where he is running for the Bundestag.
A soft-spoken, semi-bald 63-year-old who loves to “devour files”, as one ministry aide puts it, Scholz has come a long way from his political career as a mop-top SPD leftist.
As Gerhard Schröder’s labour minister in the early 2000s, his thankless task was to sell Agenda 2010 – unpopular social reforms – to outraged SPD members and a wider public.
The reforms turned around the economy but finished off Schröder. Since then the party was wracked by infighting, so distracted by identity crises that it let Merkel steal credit for its progressive grand coalition successes: a minimum wage, marriage equality and a lobby register.
This time around on the campaign trail, Scholz makes sure the SPD takes credit, in particular for pandemic measures like state-financed short-time work deals to save jobs.
“We managed to do all this in a way that was socially cushioned in a way it wouldn’t have been without the SPD, in the recent floods, too,” he said to nods from his well-heeled Potsdam audience.
Such an audience is wary of Green and Left Party (Linke) promises to hit them with a wealth surcharge. But Scholz has committed to milder tax increases for top earners as one source of funds to pay down Germany’s €400 billion pandemic borrowing. His second source is more centrist and Merkellian: Germany can pay down its pandemic debt mountain if businesses are allowed get back to work.
“What’s not on, though, are CDU promises for tax cuts for the rich, for people who earn as much as I do and more, that will cost us €30 billion,” he said.
Scholz strategists say their main play is to win back voters who abandoned the party to back Merkel. But the SPD’s strong election run, they concede, is also down to rivals’ weakness, slips and inexperience. The gaffe-prone Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate Armin Laschet, state premier in North Rhine-Westphalia, is an eight-month debutante on the stage of federal politics. Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old Green candidate, has no government credits whatsoever.
Some scandal clouds have appeared on Scholz’s horizon in recent days. But even critical SPD observers are impressed by how he has turned things around, leveraging his cabinet experience and reputation as a safe pair of hands in a crisis.
“He’s managed what many political scientists say is impossible: used his gravitas and reputation to yank up a weak political party,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “He’s hit pause on the SPD’s downfall, given it a chance to reflect and recognise its potential.”