Olaf Scholz is a winner, but not a Chancellor – not yet.
BERLIN – For a moment it felt like he was already Chancellor. As Olaf Scholz stood on the stage, surrounded by euphoric supporters who chanted his name and celebrated him as if he were the next front runner in Germany, he was the clear winner of the evening.
Mr Scholz had just done the unthinkable – to lead his long-dying center-left Social Democrats to victory, however narrowly, in Sunday’s elections, which were the most explosive in a generation.
But as if winning wasn’t hard enough, the hardest part could still come.
Mr. Scholz, a sociable but disciplined politician, was most recently Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister in the outgoing government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite representing the opposition party of their conservative Christian Democratic Union, he prevailed by convincing voters that he was not so much an agent of change as one of stability and continuity. In a race without an incumbent, he ran as one.
It’s a balancing act that may be difficult to endure for a former socialist who is now firmly rooted at the center of a rapidly changing political landscape.
It’s not that the Germans suddenly moved to the left. In fact, three out of four Germans did not vote for his party at all, and Mr Scholz advocated raising the minimum wage, strengthening German industry and fighting climate change – all mainstream positions.
Despite the majority of votes, Mr Scholz is not yet sure of becoming Chancellor. And if so, he risks getting lost in quarrels between several coalition partners, not to mention rebellious factions within his own party.
When his conservative rival continued to insist on forming a government on Monday, the dynamic behind Mr Scholz seemed to falter as it became increasingly clear that he had the strongest hand in coalition talks with two other parties. “The voters have spoken,” he confidently told reporters.
Still, his task will not be an easy one.
Mr. Scholz has been a familiar face in German politics for more than two decades and has worked in several governments. But even now it’s hard to say what kind of Chancellor he would be.
A fiery young socialist in the 1970s, he gradually became a post-ideological centrist. Today he stands to the right of significant parts of his party – not unlike President Biden in the United States, to whom he is sometimes compared. Two years ago he lost his party’s leadership competition against two leftists.
His party’s surprising revival in the elections was largely based on his personal popularity. But many warn that Mr Scholz’s appeal does not solve the deeper problems and divisions that plagued the Social Democrats, known by their German acronym SPD
“None of the allegations about staleness or political insignificance that have been made to the SPD in recent years has gone,” wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday.
Or as Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff from the German Marshall Fund put it: “Social Democrats are not offering a new package, but a centrist who makes the party behind it forget.”
Like many of her sister parties in other European countries, the German Social Democrat has been in crisis for years and is losing traditional workers voters to the extremes of left and right and young city voters to the Greens.
Now Mr. Scholz not only has to satisfy his own left party base, but also a completely new political landscape.
Instead of two dominant parties competing with one partner for a coalition, four medium-sized parties are now fighting for a place in government. For the first time since the 1950s, the next chancellor has to bring at least three different parties behind a government deal – so Scholz’s conservative runner-up Armin Laschet could theoretically beat him to the top spot.
A new era of politics has officially started in Germany – and it looks chaotic. Germany’s political landscape, for a long time a place of drowsy stability in which several chancellors stayed for more than a decade, is fragmented into several parties that no longer differ too much in size.
“There is a structural change taking place which I believe we have not yet understood,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff. “We are confronted with a change in the party system that we did not see coming weeks ago. A multi-dimensional chess game has opened up. “
Mr Scholz gets into a devilishly complicated process in which the power to decide who will be the next chairman rests almost more with the two smaller parties that will be part of a future government: the progressive Greens, which with 14.8 percent have the best result scored in their history; and the business-friendly Free Democrats with 11.5 percent. Together, these two kingmakers are now stronger than either of the two main parties.
In another premiere, the Free Democrats signaled that they would first hold talks with the Greens before turning to the larger parties.
The Free Democrats have never shied away from ruling with the Conservatives. The Greens are a much more natural fit with the Social Democrats, but could see advantages in negotiating with a weaker candidate. At the state level, they have been ruling successfully with the Christian Democrats for years.
Meanwhile, Mr Laschet, whose unpopularity and campaign errors slumped his party by nine percentage points to the lowest election result ever, said he would not give in on “moral” grounds and ignored a growing number of calls from his own camp to accept defeat.
“Nobody should behave as if they could build a government on their own,” Laschet told reporters on Monday. “You become chancellor when you create a majority.”
It would not be the first time someone who has lost the referendum has become Chancellor. In 1969, 1976 and 1980, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, both center-left chancellors, formed coalition governments after losing the referendum. But both got more than 40 percent of the vote and did not face the complex multi-party negotiations that are now beginning in Germany.
Several conservatives called on Mr. Laschet on Monday to give in.
“That was a defeat,” said the Hessian governor Volker Bouffier and added that others were now called on to form a government.
Ellen Demuth, another Conservative MP, warned Mr. Laschet that his refusal to give in is damaging his party even more. “You have lost,” tweeted Frau Demuth. “Please acknowledge that. Avoid further harming the CDU and step back. “
The head of state of the conservative youth wing was just as persistent. “We need a real renewal”, said Marcus Mündlein and that could only succeed if Mr. Laschet “accepts the consequences of this loss of trust and resigns”.
An opinion poll published after the election found that more than half of Germans would prefer a coalition led by Mr Scholz, compared to a third who said they wanted Mr Laschet at the top. When asked who they prefer as Chancellor, 62 percent voted for Mr. Scholz, compared to 16 percent for Mr. Laschet.
Some argued that a Scholz-led government would give his party the opportunity to revive its declining fortunes.
“It is a significant moment for German social democracy, which was on the verge of perpetual decline,” said Kleine-Brockhoff. “Mr. Scholz will have a very strong position because he alone is the reason for his party’s victory.”