Olaf Scholz is a winner but not chancellor – yet.
BERLIN – For a moment he had the impression that he was already chancellor. As Olaf Scholz stood on the stage surrounded by euphoric fans chanting his name and celebrating him as if he was Germany’s next frontman, he was the big winner of the evening.
Mr Scholz had just done the unthinkable – carrying his long dying center-left Social Democrats to victory, albeit narrow, in Sunday’s election which has been the most volatile in a generation.
But if winning wasn’t hard enough, maybe the hardest part is yet to come.
Mr Scholz, an affable but disciplined politician, was recently Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance in the outgoing government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although he represents the party opposed to his conservative Christian Democratic Union, he established himself by persuading voters that he was not so much an agent of change but an agent of stability and continuity. In a race without a holder, he ran as one.
It is a balancing act that can be difficult to maintain for a former socialist who is now firmly rooted in the center of a rapidly changing political landscape.
It was not that the Germans suddenly moved to the left. In fact, three in four Germans did not vote for his party at all, and Mr Scholz campaigned to raise the minimum wage, strengthen German industry and fight climate change – all dominant positions.
Despite the greater number of votes, Mr Scholz is not yet certain of becoming Chancellor. And if he does, he risks being engrossed in feuds between several coalition partners, not to mention the rebel factions within his own party.
On Monday, as his Tory rival continued to insist he would work to form a government, momentum seemed to be turning behind Mr Scholz as it became increasingly evident that he had the most hand. strong to play in coalition talks involving two other parties. “The voters have spoken,” he told reporters confidently.
However, it will not be an easy task.
Mr. Scholz has been a familiar face in German politics for more than two decades and has served in several governments. But even now, it’s hard to know what kind of chancellor he would be.
A fiery young socialist in the 1970s, he gradually softened to become a post-ideological centrist. Today he is to the right of significant parts of his party, much like President Biden in the United States, to whom he is sometimes compared. He lost his party leadership race two years ago to two leftists.
His party’s surprise rebirth in the election was based largely on his own personal popularity. But many warn that Mr Scholz’s call does not resolve the deeper issues and divisions that plagued the Social Democrats, known by their German acronym SPD
“None of the allegations of obsolescence or political irrelevance leveled against the SPD in recent years have disappeared,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday.
Or as Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund said: “The Social Democrats are not proposing a new package, they are proposing a centrist who makes you forget the party behind it.
Like many of its sister parties elsewhere in Europe, the German Social Democrats have been in crisis for years, losing traditional working class voters to the extreme left and right and young urban voters to the Greens.
Now Mr Scholz will not only have to satisfy his own left-wing party base, but he will also have to face a whole new political landscape.
Instead of two dominant parties competing to form a coalition with one partner, four mid-sized parties are now vying for a place in government. For the first time since the 1950s, the next chancellor will have to get at least three different parties behind a government deal – this is how Mr Scholz’s conservative runner-up, Armin Laschet, could theoretically still beat him at most. high post.
A new political era has officially started in Germany – and it seems messy. Germany’s political landscape, long a place of dormant stability where several chancellors remained for more than a decade, has fractured into several parties that no longer differ as much in size.
“There’s a structural change going on that I don’t think we’ve figured out yet,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “We are facing a change in the party system that we did not see coming just a few weeks ago. A multidimensional chess game has opened up.
Mr Scholz is embarking on a fiendishly complicated process where the power to decide who will become the next leader falls almost more to the two small parties that will be part of any future administration: the Progressive Greens, who, at 14.8%, obtained the best result. in their history; and the pro-business Free Democrats, with 11.5%. Together, these two kingmakers are now stronger than either of the two main parties.
In another first, the Free Democrats signaled that they would talk to the Greens first before turning to the big parties.
Free Democrats have never hesitated to prefer to govern with the Conservatives. The Greens correspond much more naturally to the Social Democrats, but could see advantages in negotiating with a weaker candidate. At the state level, they have successfully co-governed with the Christian Democrats for years.
Meanwhile, Mr Laschet, whose unpopularity and campaign errors caused his party to drop nine percentage points to its lowest ever election result, said he would not give in for “moral reasons.” Ignoring a growing number of calls from his own side to accept defeat.
“No one should behave as if they can build a government on their own,” Laschet told reporters on Monday. “You become chancellor if you can build a majority. “
It wouldn’t be the first time that someone who loses the popular vote has become chancellor. In 1969, 1976 and 1980, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, both center-left chancellors, formed coalition governments that lost the popular vote. But both got over 40 percent of the vote and did not face the complex multi-party negotiations that are currently underway in Germany.
Several conservatives urged Mr. Laschet to give in on Monday.
“It was a defeat,” said Volker Bouffier, governor of the state of Hesse, adding that others are now called upon to form a government.
Ellen Demuth, another Conservative lawmaker, warned Mr Laschet that her refusal to give in was further damaging his party. “You lost,” Ms Demuth tweeted. “Please recognize him. Avoid further injuring the CDU and resign.
The head of state of the conservative youth wing was equally adamant. “We need a real renewal,” said Marcus Mündlein and this, he said, could only be successful if Mr Laschet “bears the consequences of this loss of confidence and withdraws”.
A post-election opinion poll showed more than half of Germans preferred a coalition led by Mr Scholz, compared with a third who said they wanted Mr Laschet to take the stand. When asked who they preferred as chancellor, 62% opted for Mr Scholz, compared to 16% for Mr Laschet.
Some have argued that a government led by Scholz would offer his party an opportunity to revive its declining fortunes.
“This is a momentous moment for German social democracy, which was on the verge of eternal decline,” said Mr Kleine-Brockhoff. “Sir. Scholz will have a very powerful position because he alone is the reason his party won.”