Updated: Jun 30, 2021
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) surprised everyone last year by announcing their chancellor candidate more than a year before the general election. Olaf Scholz, defeated just months before in the party’s leadership race, is determined to become Germany’s next chancellor.
Despite having had more time than other candidates to campaign and build his image, Scholz is trailing slowly behind the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Greens in polls.
What does this mean for the SPD? Has Scholz’s conservative approach supported the party or hindered it? Is he simply too much of a bore for the German population? Here is what you need to know about Olaf Scholz.
Photo: "SPD Regionalkonferenz Olaf Scholz by OlafKosinsky MG 2532.jpg" by Olaf Kosinsky is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Upbringing and Entry into Politics
Olaf Scholz was born in Osnabrück, a city in the north western state of Lower Saxony, in 1958. He spent most of his childhood in Hamburg and studied law at the city’s university, specialising in labour law.
Joining the SPD as a high school student, Scholz was once the vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. He entered the German Bundestag in 1998, before becoming Hamburg’s Interior Minister in 2001.
From then on, it was a steady climb up the political ladder for the SPD politician, becoming Mayor of Hamburg (2011-2018) and Deputy Chair for the SPD (2009-2018, 2018-2019). Since 2018, Scholz has also been Federal Minister of Finance, playing a crucial role in helping Germany recover from the pandemic.
On 10th August 2020, Scholz was announced as the SPD’s chancellor candidate, despite having lost the SPD leadership race to left-wingers Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans in 2019.
Scholz is married to fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst. The couple has been living in Potsdam since 2018.
In 2003, the German newspaper Die Zeit famously nicknamed Olaf Scholz the ‘Scholzomat’, a combination of his name and the German word for machine (Automat). The term was intended to emphasise his rather robotic and technocratic image.
Yet, this focus on pragmatism over charisma has stood Scholz in good stead during the coronavirus pandemic. As finance minister, he played a decisive role in shaping Germany’s economic recovery package. This included a 130 billion euros stimulus package that was drafted in June of 2020.
In response to this, Deutsche Welle has described Scholz as possessing ‘a mixture of cold efficiency and supercilious confidence.’ According to Scholz, ‘we are putting all our weapons on the table to show that we are strong enough to overcome any economic challenge that this problem might pose.’
Scholz’s political character changed significantly in the lead-up to the SPD leadership race. He presented himself as friendly, emotional and more in touch with voters, whilst also maintaining his pragmatic image. This could be a useful asset to him in the upcoming federal election.
Political Stance and Election Promises
Whilst Scholz is typically placed in the conservative wing of his party, he is notoriously difficult to categorise politically. For example, he was highly critical of capitalism whilst working for the SPD Youth Organisation Jusos, but also believes in limited public spending.
Scholz wants to improve ‘the very fundamentals of everyday life.’ Unsurprisingly, he has focused on the economy when discussing his election promises, committing himself to better conditions for workers and a higher minimum wage. Scholz has also pledged to increase public investment into Germany’s health system, schools and public transport.
The Finance Minister, along with Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, has proposed a new legislative agenda to make Germany climate neutral by 2045. This would include an 88% reduction in emissions by 2040.
Looking Towards the Election
The SPD has been averaging at 15% in German polls in the past few weeks, which is less than the CDU’s average of about 27%. This doesn’t make an SPD chancellery impossible, but Scholz certainly has a lot of work to do if he wishes to succeed Merkel. Such a challenge would involve regaining the support of left-wing voters who have defected to the German Greens.
The SPD has not ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with the Greens and the left-wing party Die Linke, but such a coalition would not be so straightforward. Whilst Scholz is committed to NATO, for example, Die Linke wants to take Germany out of the alliance. Moreover, Die Linke questions whether Scholz is capable of increasing taxation for the rich and the minimum wage from €9.35 an hour to €13.
The SPD has not won a national election since 2002. Could 2021 be the year that breaks this trend? Olaf Scholz has a lot to prove of himself and his party if he wishes to become German chancellor in September.