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BERLIN — Angela Merkel may not be leaving the chancellery after all. At least not in spirit.
With less than a month to go until election day, the emerging frontrunner to become Germany’s next leader is a candidate who has modeled his political persona on the soft-spoken chancellor, right down to her trademark rhombus hand gesture.
The latest tongue-in-cheek campaign ad for Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate for the top job, reads “Er kann Kanzlerin” — saying Scholz can be chancellor but using the female form of the word, normally used for Merkel.
It might seem odd that a hopeful for high office would sell himself as a carbon copy of the leader of his party’s traditional rival, but then little about this German election campaign is normal. Not only is the incumbent not running for the first time since 1949, but a string of scandals, gaffes and strategic missteps have triggered wild swings in the polls, upending the coalition math on a weekly basis while confronting steady, boring Germany with what its citizens hate most: uncertainty.
Against that backdrop, the decision by Scholz, who currently serves as finance minister and vice chancellor, to tether himself to Germany’s political bulwark — Merkel — is less surprising, especially considering that she remains by far the country’s most popular political figure.
The tactic carries a whiff of payback as well. Merkel, even within her own center-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), has long been regarded as a closet Social Democrat (newspaper Die Welt once quipped that she might go down as “the most successful Social Democratic chancellor of all time). Many in the SPD blame their party’s historic slide in recent years in part on Merkel’s uncanny ability to take credit for popular policies they initiated as junior coalition partners, from phasing out military conscription to a minimum wage. In their view, Scholz is merely taking back a mantle that is rightfully theirs.
Much to the frustration of Merkel’s own party, the SPD strategy has worked like a charm. In recent days, Scholz’s growing popularity — he has led the field of candidates in terms of his personal appeal for months — has finally begun to rub off on his long-suffering party, vaulting the SPD into first place in several polls for the first time in 15 years.
Scholz’s tactics have so angered the Christian Democrats that leading members of the party have accused him of committing “inheritance fraud.” Merkel emerged on Tuesday to disavow any suggestion that Scholz was her rightful political heir, saying there was “a massive difference between me and Olaf Scholz when it comes to Germany’s future.”
The question is whether Merkel’s intervention was too little, too late. Germans are drawn to Scholz not so much because they think he’s the chancellor’s twin, but rather because, like her, he has earned a reputation for being a steady hand on the tiller. At a time of deep uncertainty triggered by the pandemic, the collapse of Afghanistan and political upheaval across much of the West, voters from across the political spectrum appear to draw comfort from Scholz’s stoicism.
A familiar face
A former mayor of Hamburg, Scholz, 63, is a familiar face to most Germans. A proponent of the controversial economic reforms pushed through by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, under whom he served as SPD general secretary, Scholz has his share of enemies within the party as well. Indeed, that resistance thwarted his bid to become SPD leader two years ago, when the party base chose two left-wing candidates over the moderate Scholz.
As with Merkel, Scholz’s trump card is his broad popularity. That appeal made him the SPD’s obvious choice to run for chancellor this time.
Even so, only his most enthusiastic supporters predicted he would be leading the field down the stretch. His success is as much the product of his rivals’ mistakes, however, as of his own strategic acumen. While neither the CDU’s Armin Laschet nor Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate, can match Scholz’s experience, both have squandered their parties’ strong standing in the polls in recent months with a series of own goals.
Scholz’s strategy has consisted primarily of standing back, watching and “Merkeling.” That tactic was on display Sunday during a debate between the three top candidates. Scholz was the least aggressive of the trio, but according to polls afterward, most viewers thought he won.
Attempts by rival campaigns to tar Scholz with responsibility for recent financial scandals, such as the collapse of payments-technology firm Wirecard and a massive stock-trading fraud known as CumEx, have fallen flat, in large part because the details are too complicated for many voters to grasp.
In contrast, Baerbock’s alleged plagiarism and Laschet’s inopportune laughing fit during a visit to Germany’s flood zone over the summer require no explanation.
During a trip to Karlsruhe last week, where several hundred locals gathered in a market square to hear him speak, Scholz’s feistier side was on display.
While he addressed the crisis in Afghanistan and the challenges posed by climate change, Scholz’s focus was on the travails of the SPD’s traditional constituency — the working class. He dismissed proposals for tax cuts for the wealthy amid the pressures of the pandemic as “mathematical voodoo” and “morally difficult to justify.”
He also laid out his plan to raise the minimum wage to €12 per hour, another SPD staple.
“We are now in the 2020s, where decisive decisions will be taken for our future,” he told the crowd. “One of them is: How can we increase cohesion in a society that is increasingly divided?”
The crowd lapped it up. One spectator even addressed Scholz as “Mr. Chancellor.”
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Fears of The Left
Despite the SPD’s impressive turnaround in the polls, he isn’t there yet. The CDU has upped its attacks on Scholz in recent days, pressing him to clarify whether he would enter a coalition with Die Linke (The Left) party, heir to former East Germany’s communists.
While Scholz has hinted he wouldn’t embrace such an alliance due to the other party’s longstanding opposition to NATO and ambivalence toward the European Union, he hasn’t ruled it out. That might be tactical, both to avoid turning away leftist SPD supporters and to give him leverage in coalition negotiations.
Yet the question has also highlighted Scholz’s struggle with leftist elements in his own party. Even if the SPD wins, many wonder whether he would be able to temper the more extreme demands of the left wing of the SPD, including those in its leadership, on issues such as defense spending and taxation.
History suggests he could. When Schröder, then the regional premier of Lower Saxony, led the SPD to victory in 1997, many doubted whether his moderate impulses would survive the pressure he faced from the party’s leftist leadership. Ultimately, however, he prevailed.
Considering the SPD’s low standing at the outset of the current campaign, a Scholz victory would be nothing short of a sensation. That success would likely give him the authority within the party to quash dissent.
Either way, the voters will be watching.
“I see you as the most competent of all the candidates,” a visitor to the Karlsruhe rally told Scholz. “But I will keep a close eye on you [to see] whether you can keep your promises. Our current chancellor also promised a lot and then did not keep those promises.”
In other words, being Merkel isn’t as easy as it looks.