Scholz does U-turn to run for SPD leadership

Federal finance minister enters race amid unpopular coalition and looming recession

German finance minister and member of the German Social Democratic Party  Olaf Scholz with   Manuela Schwesig: Mr Scholz has to see off five competing couples and two individual candidates.  Photograph: Omer Messinger

German finance minister and member of the German Social Democratic Party Olaf Scholz with Manuela Schwesig: Mr Scholz has to see off five competing couples and two individual candidates. Photograph: Omer Messinger

 

Almost 80 days ago, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost its seventh leader in 10 years.

Now the SPD’sOlaf Scholz, Germany’s federal finance minister, has thrown his hat into the ring to head the party, two months after taking himself out of the running.

In a nod to what may be Germany’s most poisoned chalice, Mr Scholz said he might not be the best person for the job. But he saw no option but to run for the it given no other senior party figures were interested. 

Mr Scholz was already facing into a busy autumn, trying to ward off the looming recession for Europe’s largest economy, flagged on Monday as a real risk by the Bundesbank. On top of that, he hopes to convince disillusioned SPD members that he is the right man to unite their party and avoid its political bankruptcy – skirting as low as 12 per cent in polls.

With a sober, even brittle, public personality, the SPD man has been dubbed by critics the Scholzomat – Germany’s answer to the Maybot. An SPD member for 44 of his 62 years, and a former two-term mayor of Hamburg, Mr Scholz insisted in June that being SPD leader and federal finance minister were “simply not possible from a time perspective”.

At the weekend, he shrugged off that remark, without explaining how he intends to bend space-time for the leadership race and possibly run the SPD while heading Berlin’s most important government ministry.

Hurdles ahead

“I have the impression now it would not be responsible, given the responsibility the SPD has for the future of our country, if I didn’t say now I want to do this,” he said. “That’s why I have decided differently to how I originally did.”

Mr Scholz has a few hurdles to clear before taking the top SPD job. First, he has to decide whether to run alone or find a woman running mate, in line with a new party policy of encouraging leadership duos. Then he has to see off five competing couples and two individual candidates, though none enjoy anything like his public profile or seniority in the party.

Along the way there’s a notable lack of enthusiasm among Germans for his candidacy. A poll on Monday for Spiegel Online suggested just 22 per cent of respondents supported his leadership bid, with nearly 56 per cent opposed. Inside his party, just a third of members want him as their next leader.

Now Mr Scholz faces into an exhausting autumn schedule of rank-and-file regional conferences before a final grassroots leadership vote and a December party conference to crown the winner.

Berlin gathering

And it’s not at all certain that the SPD’s third grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU since 2005 will survive that Berlin gathering. A midterm review clause is buried in the 2017 programme for government. In October, the SPD front bench will consider the coalition’s work to date and make its review clause recommendation. The final say, however, lies with party members at the Berlin party conference two months later.

Given that just one in five Germans are supportive of the grand coalition, it’s just possible that the new SPD leader’s first task will be to pull the plug on it – and Angela Merkel.

On Monday, a new study suggested her fourth-term administration, halfway through its term, has delivered on about 47 per cent of its programme for government. The report’s faint praise: the grand coalition is “better than its reputation”.

The weakest link, with just one-third of its agenda completed, is the Scholz finance ministry.