Germany's SPD on the Rise Olaf Scholz Aims to Succeed Merkel By Emulating Her
It is extremely early in the morning and most of the passengers on the government plane to Venice for the G-20 meeting are sitting slumped in their seats, wishing they could grab a bit more shuteye. But not Olaf Scholz. Instead, the grinning German finance minister and Social Democratic chancellor candidate is demonstrating his swimming prowess.
He thrusts his arms forward, turns his palms outward and swings his arms to the side before then pulling them back to his chest. He says he has even received life-guard training. If, God forbid, something were to go wrong on approach to Venice, a city Scholz has never been before, at least one person would have a chance of reaching the shore. He might even manage to save someone on the way.
As he paddles his arms, he just keeps on chatting, thoroughly enjoying himself. And that was in early July, weeks before his party started unexpectedly rising in the polls.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 35/2021 (August 27th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
Is Scholz a morning person? Does he actually have a fun and lively personality at a time of day when everyone else is still trying to wake up? Or is the standard image of Scholz – that of the dour, robotic stuffed suit – simply inaccurate? These days, the answers to such questions are more important than ever. After all, it is increasingly looking as though Scholz has a decent chance to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as Germany’s political leader.
He has, for the moment, left the Green Party behind and is currently neck-in-neck with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), at just over 20 percent support. For months – for years, really – the SPD had been languishing in the polls, often barely able to manage 15 percent. But in one recent poll on the federal election, the SPD in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania made a huge leap from 12 percent to 29 percent. Support for the center-right CDU in the state, meanwhile, cratered by 11 points to a mere 19 percent.
A surprise? Not for Scholz. Back in January, he said: "We’re in it for the long haul.” He said the turning point would likely come in August, when people returned from vacation and began thinking about who they would like to see replace Chancellor Angela Merkel once she leaves office. The obvious answer, Scholz believes, is that the want someone like Merkel. Him, in other words. He has always been convinced of that – with an iron confidence that seemed almost quixotic in the face of depressing poll numbers. For the time being, though, it appears he might be right.
But it is also a product of the weakness of his competition. Neither Armin Laschet of the CDU nor Annalena Baerbock of the Greens has so far come across as a candidate possessing the necessary gravitas for the office of chancellor. The one, Laschet, was unable to stifle laughter during a visit to Germany’s flood-devastated regions this summer. The other, Baerbock, apparently embellished her resume and lifted passages for a book she wrote. Both missteps would likely have been misdemeanors had they otherwise been convincing as candidates. But so far, they haven’t been.
And that has opened the door for 63-year-old Olaf Scholz, from Osnabrück, married but with no children. Who is he? Who does he take advice from? What would he do if he became chancellor?
At an interview last Tuesday, he was a far cry from the overconfident, crowing politician he had been during a meeting back in March – back when the SPD poll numbers were still low. Instead, he pours coffee for his guest and for himself in his office at the Finance Ministry, sits down and begins speaking quietly and calmly. He says he has been "moved” by the support he feels wherever he goes. It’s not a sense of triumph, but almost humility, as if he had resolved to be a different man than he was during our spring interview.
Is he afraid that things could turn around again and that his poll numbers could start slipping again? No, he says, he’s not afraid. "We’re on the right track.”
Does it not hurt his ego just a bit that many see him as the second coming of Angela Merkel rather than as an individual in his own right? He dodges the question.
Still, though, it’s a similarity that he is propagating himself. He was recently featured in a prominent spread in the influential newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung holding his hands just as Merkel is famous for doing – the so-called "Merkel rhombus.” He has also unabashedly quoted her famous line from the 2013 election campaign: "You know me.” It is a unique way of running a campaign: Never before has a candidate in Germany sought to present themselves as a clone of their predecessor.
And even though they are nominally from different sides of the political spectrum, it’s easy for Scholz to sell himself as her natural successor, since Merkel essentially governed as a Social Democrat. The coalition she led introduced Germany’s first minimum wage – one that Scholz now wants to increase. That, he says, will be part of his first 100 days if elected, including improvements for care providers, renewed vigor in the construction of affordable housing and a push for pension reform. He says he doesn’t want to rush things, wary as he is of repeating the mistakes made the last time the SPD moved into the Chancellery in 1998 in a coalition with the Green Party. Back then, people quickly began doubting that the SPD was up to the task. Scholz wants to ensure that the same fate doesn’t befall him. He wants to take a more cautious, pragmatic approach. Like Merkel.
Both are considered to be level-headed and disciplined. Their even keel seems to be their greatest similarity. But sitting down with Scholz is completely different than sitting down with Merkel.
In personal settings and smaller groups, the chancellor is far livelier than Scholz is – if only because of her uncontrollable facial features. She rolls her eyes at questions, shakes her head and turns down the corners of her mouth. Her upper body is constantly moving. There are, in effect, two Merkels: the staid one in public, and a more entertaining one in small groups.
Scholz, on the other hand, is almost always Scholz. If they were to play poker together, there is no way he could lose. Merkel would have her hand more or less projected in her face. He would see everything; she would see nothing. Too bad, really, that we can’t sit them down together for a game of hold ’em.
But even Scholz isn’t capable of controlling himself all the time. Sometimes, a chortling laugh erupts from him, making him seem almost childlike. His language will sometimes descend to street level, saying things like "shit,” or "these assholes.” He has even referred to the German economics minister as "Loser Altmaier.”
He’s also a bit of a mime, making swimming motions when talking about swimming, for example – something Merkel would never do. He has also mimed the firing of a bazooka before – from the hip. When told that a bazooka is fired from the shoulder, his staff researched diligently until they found pictures of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo firing from the hip with a bazooka. They were relieved.
But Scholz as Rambo? He laughs and then quickly brushes the subject away. It’s not a comparison that appeals to him. He preferred it when the German media wrote that he had sped through Venice in a fancy motorboat almost like James Bond once did. The similarities, though, had more to do with the boat and the background than with Scholz. Once he got to the finance minister meetings at the G-20, Scholz was again Scholz, without a hint of glamor or charisma.
When it comes to setting policy, Merkel and Scholz have a more intellectual than emotional approach. And yet there are still big differences. Merkel’s historical frame of reference is largely fueled by her own past, her life in a socialist dictatorship, the rupture caused by the fall of the Berlin Wall and her surprising rise in the reunited Germany.
Scholz, whose background isn’t all that exciting, generates his thoughts primarily through books. The references aren’t as deep, but they are broader. When he talks about the current situation in Afghanistan, he starts with the Prussian reforms that began after Napoleon’s defeat. It’s a somewhat tedious, winding path from Karl Freiherr von Stein in 1807 to the Taliban of today, but Scholz certainly gets you there.
When he was in Venice, he visited the German pavilion at the Architecture Biennale. The conversation soon turned to the building’s renovation under the Nazis in 1938. Scholz also recounted how he has had to reside in Nazi buildings twice, once as labor minister, in the building that formerly housed the Reich Propaganda Ministry, and now as finance minister, in what had been Hermann Göring’s Reich Aviation Ministry. He combats his discomfort with the situation using photos of the German pavilions at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. They were built by Sep Ruf and Egon Eiermann in the democratic style – open, bright, friendly.
The pictures hang in his office – an elegant way of demonstrating historical awareness.
Backed Into a Corner
One evening in Venice underscored the greatest similarity between Merkel and Scholz. The SPD chancellor candidate landed at the hotel jetty in a motorboat, stepping off into a small hotel garden with a bar directly on the Grand Canal, the lights of passing boats and gondolas in the background as the water lapped against the bulkhead.
Scholz then proceeded to stand there, at the edge of the Grand Canal, for almost three hours answering journalists’ questions. It was a long march through election campaign details and global politics. And he never once wavered – he weathered all criticism and demonstrated how tremendously knowledgeable he is. It was a performance worthy of Merkel.
Both are consummate professionals, experienced career politicians who almost always come across as confident, thus giving people a sense of security. Above all, this is what Scholz is counting on in his election campaign: With me in the Chancellery, you’ll be able to sleep just as well as you did under Merkel.
That’s why it has been so interesting to see how Scholz reacts when he is backed into a corner. At the end of April, he had to testify before the federal parliament’s investigative committee looking into the Wirecard scandal. The financial services provider had been destroyed by its executives, who left it bankrupt and defrauded creditors of billions of euros. The German financial supervisory authority, which reports to Scholz, had long failed to see what was happening inside the company.
Witness Scholz arrives in front of a parliamentary investigative committee looking in to the financial scandal surrounding payment systems provider Wirecard.Foto: Kay Nietfeld / AFP
To kick things off, Scholz said petulantly that he was "deeply relaxed." Then, showing a bit of nerves after all, he read a statement absolving himself of any guilt or involvement. When the suspicion later arose that Scholz had improperly sent official emails from a private account, the CDU chairman of the committee sensed a German affair similar to the email scandal experienced by Hillary Clinton. The questioning grew sharper.
Scholz was no longer relaxed – he seemed agitated and edgy, and he grew a bit snippy. Although the alleged scandal didn’t really turn out to be anything but political hot air, the limits of Scholz’s coolness had become apparent. Just as Merkel’s have during the pandemic.
Besides, his "I’m like Merkel” strategy can really only work with voters who think the chancellor has done her job very well. And the number of people who think she has not done so is not small. Furthermore, the most serious failure of the current German government, it’s inadequate climate protection policies, is also Scholz’s fault. He has shown no eagerness to impose stricter climate targets and measures. Indeed, Scholz believes that climate change can be stopped "without great sacrifice.” One should not ask too much of the voters. Sound familiar?
As finance minister, he benefited from the prospering economy and a positive budget situation, which allowed him to be generous when billions of euros were needed to cushion the blow of the coronavirus pandemic. But that was more luck than personal achievement.
On the other hand, the fact that there will soon be a global minimum tax, which could ensure more fairness between countries, is partially a credit to Scholz. What he has not dared to do, though, is introduce a major tax reform in Germany to eliminate injustices at home. That kind of undertaking would be controversial under any circumstances, and he would have to expect fierce resistance. Scholz didn’t want to expose himself to such a thing. See above.
His record as finance minister also includes the fact that his income tax reform proposal was drawn up with the help of his ministry and an external, publicly funded research institute, as DER SPIEGEL reported back in July. That reform proposal is now part of his campaign.
Lisa Paus, the fiscal policy point person for the Green Party in parliament, accuses Scholz of a cover-up and of stalling tactics. He still owes an explanation for how the SPD’s tax plan for the election campaign was created and how it was financed. "The information provided in response to our questions so far has been less than meager,” Paus complains.
Citing the Freedom of Information Act, she has filed a request with the Finance Ministry demanding that Scholz publish the department’s internal and external correspondence relating to the SPD tax plan. The request also includes the demand that Scholz publicly release the contract with the research institute that created the tax plan. Paus accuses Scholz of playing for time and trying to drag the matter out until after the election. "This is instrumentalization of a ministry,” she says.
Scholz’s experience goes far beyond merely having a seat at the cabinet table. For seven years, he served as mayor of Hamburg, a city of 1.8 million people. When he took the reins of the Hamburg chapter of the SPD, it was divided and riven by trench warfare. He promised leadership, and he delivered. Sometimes with a heavy hand.
One critic from within his party in Hamburg says that while Scholz was consistently well-informed, he preferred to be surrounded by "yes men.” During meetings of his cabinet, says the critic, the abbreviation "OWI” was frequently used, short for "Olaf Wants It.” After that, the discussion was over. "The city parliament had only one function in Olaf’s mind: It should elect the mayor at the beginning of the election period and otherwise keep quiet,” says one person familiar with Scholz.
Under Scholz’s leadership, though, the party was able to get back on its feet. One of his greatest successes was ensuring that the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s expensive and massively over budget new concert hall, ultimately became a landmark to be proud of.
It was only at the end of his term as mayor that Scholz made a mistake for which many still haven’t forgiven him. Without consulting others, he told Chancellor Merkel that the 2017 G-20 summit could take place in Hamburg – a city where the left-wing autonomous scene has particularly deep roots. Scholz didn’t take the warnings seriously, and even on the eve of the event, he was still trumpeting it as a joyous party, a cheerful happening.
Rioting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in 2017: Scholz, who was the city's mayor at the time, didn't take warnings seriously.Foto: XIM.GS / imago images
It turned out to be anything but. Hordes of hooded rioters cut a swath of destruction through the city and Scholz was forced to issue a public apology after the summit. He said he hadn’t seen any of it coming. When he left office, the local Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper said goodbye with the words: "Scholz’s departure for Berlin” is "also a relief” because of the G-20 disaster.
But it’s another scandal that still has the potential to catch up with him. At the end of 2016, the city-state of Hamburg waived a back-tax claim of €47 million euros against Warburg Bank. The bank had secured credits with dubious stock transactions in what would become the Cum-Ex scandal. When the question arose as to whether Hamburg would claim the money or let the matter lapse, bank executives visited Scholz at City Hall. He referred them to the city-state’s finance minister, and a short time later, the matter was dropped.
Did Scholz exert any influence over the decision? He vehemently denies that he did and claims he can’t recall his conversations with the bankers. The matter is not entirely settled, though. An investigative committee in Hamburg is currently taking a closer look at what happened, and if Scholz were to become chancellor, the committee would likely attract a lot more attention.
But will he? "Everything is going according to plan!” Such was the greeting offered by Wolfgang Schmidt, a senior official in the Finance Ministry who is, apart from his wife Britta Ernst, Scholz’s closest confidant. He is Scholz’s mastermind, spin doctor and eminence grise all at the same time. He has been so tightly interconnected with the candidate for close to 20 years that Schmidt has sometimes compared it to a marriage.
"The Right Candidate for Chancellor"
Schmidt slouches down into his chair, only once sitting up suddenly. The campaign has gone from a three-way fight to a two-way contest, he says, using his arms to demonstrate – alternately striking the tabletop with one hand and the other. Laschet or Scholz, Scholz or Laschet. Compared to his boss, he’s exploding with life – gregarious, approachable and emotional.
When he’s not talking, he’s tweeting, and not everyone in the SPD is particularly pleased by his antics. Some feel that a bit more humility would do him good.
For top politicians, having a loyal and competent inner circle is a vital condition for success, and Scholz has gathered a dedicated and devoted group around him over the years. It includes his spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit. He and Schmidt maintain an almost identical look: trimmed, graying beard, jeans, jacket and backpack. The vice chancellor’s other confidants are also, almost without exception, men around 50 – state secretaries Rolf Bösinger and Jörg Kukies, department for planning and strategy head Benjamin Mikfeld. The group is so homogeneous that it could prove problematic for the candidate.
Indeed, you have to look to Scholz’s extended group before you find a woman: Andrea Nahles, the former SPD party chair and parliamentary group leader. The two speak with each other regularly, away from the public eye. Schmidt also keeps in touch with her: When she led the Social Democrats, she wanted to make Scholz her candidate for chancellor. That’s how the two had planned it.
"I have always thought that Olaf Scholz was the right candidate for chancellor,” says Nahles, "and now it looks like I was right.” For two years after leaving politics, she kept an ironclad silence, but now she is speaking out in support of the SPD candidate. "Scholz is doing well, and the SPD’s current poll numbers are his success,” she says. "He has succeeded in instilling discipline in the SPD.” Nahles says that although Scholz is often described as being sober and dry, "he is actually a passionate politician.” Apparently, it’s an inner passion.
In her own way, the failed party leader is even campaigning for Scholz: Nahles could recently be seen putting up campaign posters for Scholz in her hometown of Weiler in North Rhine-Westphalia.
After her resignation, the SPD voted for new leadership in 2019. In that race, Scholz lost to Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. It was a significant humiliation for Scholz, losing to two outsiders. It was a time of deep division in the party, and it was sliding in the polls. In December 2019, polling institute Forsa showed the party enjoyed just 11 percent support. In a talk show, Esken said that Scholz was not a staunch Social Democrat. It was a moment at which many would have forgiven Scholz for backing out of politics. But he didn’t. Instead, he met with the new party heads. There was no way either of them could run for the Chancellery since they didn’t have the necessary connections within the party. They needed Scholz. And he needed them.
The election of Walter-Borjans and Esken was far from the first time the party had shown a lack of faith in Scholz. Back in 2003, at an SPD party conference in Bochum, only 52.6 percent of party delegates confirmed him as the party’s secretary general – essentially the absolute minimum.
Still, Scholz knew he needed the two new party leaders in order to continue playing a relevant role. He had the well-known name, while Esken and Walter-Borjans had access to the party, which they had to pacify. That was the deal.
It didn’t work very well at first. The two new SPD leaders, inexperienced as they were, unsettled the party with initiatives that they didn’t coordinate with the other Social Democrats. Party Secretary General Lars Klingbeil had to intervene, introducing regular conference calls. Every Monday and Tuesday, at 8 a.m., the five most important party members were to confer with each other: the two party chairs, Scholz, Klingbeil and parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich.
In addition, Scholz and the two party leaders meet regularly. Despite the greater coordination, however, the relationship with Walter-Borjans remained complicated. The former North Rhine-Westphalia finance minister can’t stand Scholz. He sees himself as the party’s chief finance expert and suffers from the fact that Scholz, as the German finance minister, casts the much bigger shadow.
At the same time, though, the relationship between Esken and Scholz has developed well. Unnoticed by the public, a new German SPD dream team has been formed. They text each other, they talk frequently, and they trust each other. When he was tapped as the party’s chancellor candidate last year, his new confidant Esken cheered on Twitter: "Olaf’s got the stuff to be chancellor.” Overall, the deal has worked surprisingly well. Scholz compares the SPD to an oil tanker. "It takes a while to steer it,” he says in his office on Tuesday, once again back to acting as he imitates a big ship, using his arms to depict the maneuvers that keep the tanker on course. Satisfied, he lets it sail away.
If he is elected, it’s likely the party will likely quickly become his. Indeed, if Scholz were to make the improbable true, the SPD would be unable to exert much control over him. The party has few big names left and its committees are enfeebled – and it has two weak party leaders at the top. As chancellor, Scholz would have power over everything important. If Scholz were to become chancellor, it’s likely that the SPD would be the least of his problems for a time.
But to become chancellor, his party will have to beat the Greens on election night. Then he would have to make an offer to the Greens that they find more attractive than governing together with the conservative CDU or in a coalition together with the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Right now, the Greens don’t have much good to say about Scholz. "He doesn’t care even a bit about the climate issue, as he has shown many times as mayor in Hamburg and as finance minister,” says Oliver Krischer, the deputy head of the Green Party’s parliamentary group. "In terms of policies, he’s not much different than (conservative candidate) Armin Laschet.” Others speak of how stubborn Scholz has been in negotiations over prices for CO2 emissions.
Nevertheless, many say that the Greens have the most in common with the Social Democrats. That Scholz is different from Laschet after all. That more Green policies could be implemented with him.
For the vast majority of Greens, the priority is clear: They would prefer a coalition government with the SPD and the FDP than one with the CDU and the FDP, and they would prefer to be in the government rather than in the opposition. So, Chancellor Scholz? The Greens wouldn’t likely stand in the way.
But things would be harder with the FDP. When FDP leaders talk about Scholz, they tend to draw a fine line. "The problem for the FDP isn’t Scholz, the problem is his party,” says FDP deputy head Wolfgang Kubicki. In the long run, he argues, Scholz would be unable to sideline party leftists Esken and Kühnert. In Kubicki’s view, the SPD candidate’s positive poll numbers are not the result of smart policies. "Scholz has suddenly become a shining light, but not because of anything he has done – it’s because Laschet and Baerbock have made so many mistakes. At the moment, Scholz has the fortune of not standing out.”
A coalition with the CDU and the Greens is still the option supported by the vast majority of FDP supporters, though FDP party boss Christian Lindner hasn’t ruled out the possibility of entering a government coalition with the SPD and the Greens, but a week ago Monday, during a meeting of the party’s executive, he put up for debate whether the party should publicly reject that option even more strongly in the coming weeks.
According to participants, Lindner said governing with the SPD would endanger his party’s existence in the long run. Above all, he cited issues of tax and debt policy as being close to insurmountable obstacles. Scholz can imagine raising taxes, and he long ago began debt spending.
Kubicki says he is simply unable to imagine a partnership between the SPD and the FDP. He also believes that if Scholz were to seriously seek a coalition with the FDP, "it would end up tearing the SPD apart.”
Scholz disagrees. To win over the FDP, he needs the specter of a coalition government that would pair the SPD with the Greens and the Left Party, which the Social Democrats have shunned in the past because of the latter’s links to the former Communist Party of East Germany. If that alliance were to have a mathematical majority after the election, Lindner would have to fear that he would be unable to lead his party into the government after yet another election. That could clear the path for the FDP to negotiate to enter a government coalition with the SPD.
For that to happen, though, the SPD-Green-Left Party hookup would have to be a serious option for Scholz. In fact, the SPD, the Greens and the Left could probably agree quickly on many points. The biggest obstacle would still be the Left Party’s foreign policy: Its rejection of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, of NATO and of the West as a whole.
That’s why it remains more likely there would be a government coalition with the SPD, the Greens and the FDP. But that’s not really a safe bet either. There are just under four weeks to go until the election, and experience shows that the polls aren’t always accurate. Scholz could move into the Chancellery or he could end up in the opposition in German parliament.
Standing here in his ministry, he seeks to exude confidence. He holds a dark red baton in both hands with the inscription "Run for Olaf!” that the photographer has brought along with him. It’s a photo shoot for DER SPIEGEL.
The photographer does his best to loosen Scholz up, but he doesn’t quite succeed. The vice chancellor isn’t comfortable and his tense search for a relaxed smile is in vain. Merkel was also always like that, but she would have sent the photographer packing after three minutes. Scholz struggles for half an hour.
The photographer has brought along music by Queen, a soundtrack for Scholz’s shoot. At some point, when "Under Pressure” plays, it seems a bit counterproductive. Then comes "We Are the Champions,” which also isn’t much help. "We Will Rock You" is also a failure and seems politically out of place, given how unlikely it is that Scholz will rock Germany if he becomes chancellor.
Finance Minister Scholz at the G-20 meeting in Venice in JulyFoto: Xander Heinl / photothek
It’s more likely he will stick to the status quo. Perhaps that also speaks in favor of Scholz from the point of view of some voters: that not everything will change, that people’s lives can basically remain the same. Continuity is a great help in combating fear of the future. And professionalism means, above all, that a person has mastered the well-worn rules of the game very well. There is no promise in this word.
But another problem lurks in the promise of continuity. Democracy is characterized by change, the possibility of alternatives. In that sense, the 16 years under Merkel were bad for Germany. Scholz would be deliberately perpetuating that era.
If he were to wind up in the Chancellery, it would be vindication of his hardcore professional politics, but after all these years of criticism, he would also get the last laugh. Of the three candidates, he is without question the most professional and, therefore, the best measured against the classic standards of politics.
But one question remains unanswered: Why had Scholz never been to Venice before? He says he spent his vacations in Costa Rica, Argentina and Tanzania and didn’t have time for Venice. Then he talks about the corner in Hamburg that is modeled after Venice: the shopping arcades located right next to City Hall.
Scholz can transform everything into dry facts, even a romantic place like Venice.