He won Germany’s general election and now the politician who was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s deputy for three years takes office.
Olaf Scholz managed to leave his old technocratic image behind and secured a deal to govern with the Greens and the Free Democrats.
The 63-year-old former mayor of Hamburg has promised voters continuity after 16 years under the conservative Merkel, even though he is a candidate for the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD).
His pragmatic way of dealing with the covid-19 pandemic crisis has earned him high praise and high approval ratings.
His critics spoke of his record as finance minister, accusing him of failure in two major financial scandals.
Managing the Covid Crisis
As minister, Scholz oversaw the federal government’s €750 billion ($4.7 trillion) emergency financing package to help German businesses and workers survive the pandemic.
“This is the weapon needed to get the job done,” Scholz said. “We are putting all our weapons on the table to show that we are strong enough to overcome any economic challenge this issue may pose.”
He chaired cabinet meetings when Chancellor Merkel isolated herself as a precaution.
Despite the covid crisis, Scholz had a basis to manage social welfare and fight for German cohesion, true to his left-wing roots.
Before his SPD candidacy for the post of chancellor was announced, Scholz used to say, when asked if he would run, “we have to work, not have the luxury of vanity.”
With France, Scholz also spearheaded the architecture of the European Union’s €750 billion fund for pandemic recovery.
And after Angela Merkel’s era of close relations with France, Scholz’s record of maintaining Franco-German solidarity is also favorable.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire praised him not only for his solidarity with France, but also for his brother, Jens Scholz, who airlifted six critically ill French covid-19 patients to the hospital in Kiel. It was an expensive mission to save lives, paid for by the German government.
“So thank you, Olaf, for everything you’ve done. But thank you also to your brother. It’s a really big German family, the Scholz family,” said Le Maire.
Frustrations on the left
In the ranks of the SPD, however, Olaf Scholz is seen as a conservative. The party is co-led by Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who are further to the left.
Scholz, who is married to fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst, grew up in Hamburg and entered politics as a leader of the Socialist Youth. He studied employment law.
He was mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, a period when his politics became less radical. He was first elected to the federal parliament (Bundestag) in 1998.
The SPD has been a partner in Merkel’s Christian Democrat (CDU) coalition for much of the past eight years, and many SPD members complained that the policies agreed by their grand coalition or “GroKo” were too conservative.
In contrast, his conservative election rival, Armin Laschet, has repeatedly accused him of not ruling out an alliance with leftist Die Linke. It was never likely, but politically it would not be wise for Congressman Scholz to reject him out of hand.
Die Linke’s grand political plan to leave NATO was never on his agenda. “Everyone who knows me knows what’s going on,” he said during a debate.
And voters knew the vice chancellor had worked closely and successfully with Angela Merkel, so he’s achieved more with the electorate than her appointed successor as the continuity candidate.
His performance in the debate was widely praised as safe, even though he seemed predictable, and he was helped by a lackluster campaign by Laschet.
He seemed more vulnerable when pressed about how his department was handling two financial scandals – Wirecard and the cum-ex trade fraud. The Wirecard payments company collapse was the biggest fraud scandal in modern Germany, and a report this year said Scholz was responsible for the regulator’s failure.
He got caught in the cum-ex share dividend scam because he was mayor of Hamburg when millions of euros were lost. However, neither case did him much harm with voters. Analysts suggested the scandals were too complex for voters to worry.
Six days before the election, he appeared in person to answer questions from lawmakers about money laundering investigations. A Liberal MP said he “has no control over his own affairs”.
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