‘Crafty Smurf’ Scholz carried to power in second political comeback

Postwar Germany’s ninth chancellor has big shoes to fill and two immediate crises to fix

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her designated successor, Olaf Scholz. Photograph: John Macdougall/Pool/AFP via Getty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her designated successor, Olaf Scholz. Photograph: John Macdougall/Pool/AFP via Getty

 

Olaf Scholz chose his words carefully last March when a catty conservative rival attacked him for his “Smurf-like grin”.

Scholz, not noted previously as a cartoon expert, replied coolly that “Smurfs are small, crafty and always win”.

Last spring he looked nothing like a winner, with his Social Democratic Party (SPD) flatlining at 13 per cent in the polls. Six months later he won back the chancellery for the party, and next week the craggy 63-year-old with shaved head and watchful eyes will be sworn in as postwar Germany’s ninth chancellor.

He has big shoes to fill. On Wednesday evening, after 16 years, Angela Merkel was serenaded out of office by an army band, her eventful tenure ending in a dual crisis.

The first: not enough people are vaccinated against Covid-19, meaning Germany faces into a bleak Christmas season with record infection rates and overloaded hospitals. The second crisis is one of confidence: Europe’s largest country can develop vaccines at warp speed, but can neither organise the rollout to those who want them nor convince those who don’t to take them.

With little voter appetite for change at a time of crisis, Scholz won September’s election largely by co-opting Merkel’s winning mix of low-key stability, common sense and no-frills sobriety.

But this week, with record infection numbers requiring fresh lockdowns, he made a quiet but firm break, calling out Merkel’s cautious style of leadership as indecisive. “Many people are very frustrated, they want clear and quick decisions,” he told Die Zeit weekly. “The new government will act.”

He presented plans to streamline and expedite chancellery pandemic decisions and blindsided Merkel with a promise to make Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory by March at the latest.

Radical cuts

No one is underestimating the ability of Scholz to turn things around. After all the man who united the SPD to lead it back to power next week is the same man whose thankless task it was, as labour minister in 2003, to push through radical cuts to welfare and worker rights. The “Agenda 2010” reforms eventually revived the struggling German economy, but collapsed the government of Gerhard Schröder and split the SPD.

His fortunes began to turn only in August when, as his main rivals began making serious slips, the SPD rolled out a campaign that was tailored around Scholz, with images as striking as the message.

It repositioned Scholz as a progressive, ready to roll back the worst extremes of the reforms with a €12 minimum wage, stable pensions and more generous welfare payments. With a united campaign message – fairness – his party banded behind him, and voters followed. 

Scholz, born in Osnabrück, studied law, entered the Bundestag in 1998 and left his radical student politics at the door. Party colleagues say he is admired rather than liked for his thick skin and stamina: some praise his “dry wit” while others have encountered a “patronising intellectual”.

In the first Merkel grand coalition, as labour minister during the banking and euro crises, Scholz earned kudos for implementing emergency measures that kept Germans at work and the economy out of recession.

Back in Hamburg from 2011, as SPD governing mayor for seven years, he was a popular law-and-order figure – until 2017 when riots at the G20 meeting transformed the city into a war zone.

Untested alliance

As federal finance minister for the past four years, Scholz brought a new generation of economists and advisers into his ministry to soften an economic orthodoxy that left Berlin increasingly out of step with its fellow euro zone members. When the pandemic struck, this team shaped and rolled out emergency stimulus measures at home and at EU level – the latter allowing Brussels issue bonds for the first time. Scholz has sent mixed signals on whether that was a one-off measure.

Before that EU reform debate can begin in earnest, however, Scholz has to make a go of his untested three-way alliance at home with diametrically opposed coalition partners: the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and leftist Greens.

After speedy and discreet coalition talks, they have committed to expensive promises – more generous welfare and far-reaching economic transformation – but without tax increases and, as yet, no clear financing plan.

Though an SPD chancellor, Scholz is not chairman of his party, leaving him dependent on a leadership duo to help discipline his party’s centrist and leftist wings.

Finally, a lingering scandal over a tax-dodging bank from his Hamburg days may yet come back to haunt him in Berlin.

Close confidantes say the new chancellor’s priority is a progressive government that corrects big and small social injustices, proves that industrial economies can make a green leap and repositions Berlin as a proactive European partner. Until the pandemic passes, though, no one expects to see much of that Smurf-like grin.

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