Olaf Scholz lays out case for SPD leading next German government

Chancellor hopeful speaks of post-Covid socially just and carbon-neutral digital plan

 Chancellor candidate of the German Social Democrats Olaf Scholz: Remains to be seen if he has full support of the leftist leadership duo of  Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. Photograph: Sean Gallup

Chancellor candidate of the German Social Democrats Olaf Scholz: Remains to be seen if he has full support of the leftist leadership duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. Photograph: Sean Gallup

 

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is so ambitious to lead the next government after September’s federal election that its plan for power, presented by chancellor hopeful Olaf Scholz, speaks of “future missions” – plural.

Europe’s largest economy and industrial powerhouse needs a digital transition plan that is both socially just and carbon neutral by 2030 – and Scholz is the man for the job.

“This means a huge expansion of renewable energy and our power networks, it means we have to develop the hydrogen industry, and we must act in areas like modern mobility, digital sovereignty and an up-to-date healthcare system,” said Scholz, 62-year-old finance minister in Angela Merkel’s government.

With his hand on the purse strings, his other promise to voters is further expansionist government in the immediate future to grow the country out of the current pandemic shock.

It would be “stupid” to prune Germany’s steady, functioning health service, he said, and “economically wrong” to transition austerity politics and “cut back on investments so essential for the future”.

“The question is how do we mobilise the means we need to have a smart growth path in the next years that encourages jobs and social cohesion,” said Scholz, presenting the SPD’s first election blueprint.

Grudging praise

Equal parts left-wing and green tint, the document stands in inverse proportion, however, to Scholz’s hopes of ever implementing the plan as chancellor.

Even before Germany’s election season kicks off in earnest, the subzero temperatures mirror the fate of Scholz and his SPD: hopelessly frozen.

The party crept back into power and a third grand coalition in 2017 after polling a record low of just 20.5 per cent. Four years later, and five points lower again in polls, the centre-left party* has two likely options after polling day on September 26th: a junior coalition position under a Green government or, more likely, rest and recovery on the opposition benches.

The Scholz preliminary programme has received grudging praise for its ambition but – whether on social cohesion, climate or business – widespread confusion over how the SPD hopes to win votes with borrowed ideas. On climate in particular, the Greens are the political original and, five points ahead in polls, more trusted on the environment.

The SPD named Scholz early in the hope that his steady crisis performance would rub off on his party. At least until election day seven months from now, Scholz – for many the face of the SPD’s centrist and business-friendly wing – is de facto leader. But it remains to be seen if he has the full support of the SPD’s leftist leadership duo – Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken.

Identity struggles

That the SPD has, for the first time since 1949, looked beyond its leader for a chancellor hopeful is an indication of the deep-seated identity struggles still plaguing Germany’s oldest political party. Like many sister parties across Europe, its working-class electorate has either evaporated or defected elsewhere.

Warming himself up for the election race since Christmas, Scholz has distanced himself from his allies in Merkel’s CDU, which is largely in charge of pandemic planning. The SPD candidate has hit out at the “shitty” Covid-19 vaccine procurement in Brussels and Berlin – but it is a risky strategy to criticise a government of which he is a member.

Just as risky is his warning that Germany needs to pick up the pace if it can master his green, social digital transformation. As it stands, Scholz says, Germany is “much too sluggish”. Which begs the question just what the SPD has been doing in power for five of the last six election terms since 1998.

*This article was edited at 17.45 on February 10th, 2021 to correct an error

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