Could Olaf Scholz be the next Merkel?

Cordelia Friesendorf | Updated on August 27, 2020

The Federal Finance Minister’s prevous stints have showcased his political talents and social skills. But the German chancellorship demands more

Germany’s federal elections are due next year and the race to court vote-banks has begun. Angela Merkel’s decision in 2018 to refrain from chancellorship opens avenues for multiple candidates. Merkel’s nominee Annegret-Kramp Karrenbauer (known as AKK) failed to assert her authority as CDU leader in the state of Thuringia, where she could not stop her colleagues from joining hands with the far-Right AfD. Merkel’s intervention restored balance, but forced AKK to step down. This created a bigger power vacuum and established Merkel’s chancellorship of more than 14 years, a bar too high for any successor to achieve.

The pandemic encouraged unexpected contestants into the fray. Markus Söder, the Head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Minister-President of Bavaria, portrayed himself as a dogged crisis manager by engaging in media tactics to coax suggestions that he could be the next Chancellor. Popularity in Bavaria alone does not guarantee electoral success across Germany. The CSU hardly caters to the multi-faceted agenda of the modern cosmopolitan German. On sustainable development, energy efficiency and creative welfare measures, the Green party headed by Anna-Lena Baerbock is better off. The Greens will be a significant coalition partner, if they do not win a majority.

Post-war German history shows that the Federal government was either in the hands of the centre-Right CDU or the centre-Left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Merkel’s coalition government of the last two terms comprised the CDU, the CSU and the SPD. During these years, there were remarkable disagreements which threatened government collapse, no confidence motions and saw new parties emerge. There was no love lost between Merkel’s CDU and her largest coalition partner SPD; however, being compelled to work with each other resulted in finding common goals.

Merkel’s choice of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz for the influential position of Federal Finance Minister was a clear demonstration of this marriage of ideas between the CDU and the SPD. An imperative aspect hereby was the change in the steering of Germany’s fiscal policies. Scholz’s financing strategy reversed the standardised CDU position of a zero-fiscal balance where he argued that investment was the motor to economic growth.

With many years in politics, Olaf Scholz is a seasoned lawmaker. He brings to the table what Germans admire the most — minimum talk, maximum delivery. He was Home Minister of Hamburg, General Secretary of the SPD, Federal Labour Minister and his longest stint was Mayor of Hamburg. The last position made him memorable for his prowess as being a man of and for the people.

Unlike other German metropolitan cities, Hamburg has a specialty to its challenges. Its Hanseatic flair of being a 400-year-old maritime city has endowed its population with an advanced appreciation of openness, liberty and identity. These traits produce diverse perspectives that makes unanimous agreements a Herculean, unpalatable governance task. In this testing environment, Olaf Scholz built his brand as an effective negotiator and an able statesman.

In Hamburg Scholz’s biggest successes are building 55,000 homes in his eight-year term, which was deemed as a role model for Germany’s metropolitan cities, and erecting the long-due tourist attraction Elbphilharmonie.

Scholz also faced enormous criticism in the aftermath of the G20 summt in Hamburg, that was marked with Left-wing vandalism. The opposition demanded his resignation. This turned out to be a symbolic moment in his career, which gave insights on his potential for tougher jobs. Scholz apologised to the people of Hamburg for the damages caused, thereby acceding planning fallacies. This catapulted his popularity as a mayor open to criticism and a political leader capable of self-reflection.

Germany’s future chancellorship demands more than political talents, social skills and international experience. As evident in Merkel’s tenure, the post requires a deep understanding and appreciation of the Western values of democracy, equity-driven growth, economic welfare, social inclusion and a dedication to anti-corruption. To implement these domestically and abroad, the candidate requires political acumen to discern, debate and run parliamentary agendas towards a regulation-based functioning of the State machinery. On the other hand, the candidate should be effective in negotiation and be able to build alliances in and out of Europe. Given the above realities, Olaf Scholz may not yet be the right fit to fill in Merkel’s shoes, but he surely is the only candidate who comes closest to replace Merkel as Germany and the world knows her.

The writer is Professor, International School of Management, Hamburg

International School of Management, Hamburg

Published on August 27, 2020

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