In a surprising early move, the German Social Democratic Party has announced that the current Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor to Angela Merkel, 62-year-old Olaf Scholz, will run as the party’s candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in the elections scheduled for late 2021. The elections will mark the end of the Merkel era, as she has decided not to run for another term.

The timing of the announcement sparked criticism from Scholz’s opponents, who have accused the Social Democratic Party of indulging in domestic politicking during a crisis that calls for political unity. As the announcement has sparked controversy, this article will examine the background to Scholz’s nomination, the domestic and external factors influencing his candidacy, and his chances of success, in particular following his successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Background to Scholz’s candidacy

Scholz was not the easy choice for the Social Democratic Party, especially as he had been ruled out as a potential candidate for the position of chancellor more than once by opinion-makers in Germany and by the party’s own members. The party’s left wing has been particularly critical of Scholz, causing him to lose the party leadership elections in 2019 to two lesser-known but more left-wing candidates, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.

Despite being longstanding internal opponents of Scholz, Esken and Walter-Borjans have changed their view on him in light of how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis, stating that: “Since the start of the crisis, Scholz has worked closely with the party leadership. He is an experienced politician who works for the benefit of the team and fights for social democratic policies.”

Although the reasons for the party’s early nomination of Scholz are not known, according to popular tabloid newspaper Bild it appears as though his name had been circulating for a while within the party, despite being a controversial choice that had previously been ruled out. The party leadership said that: “We know that, for some, this decision is an unexpected turning point, but we ask that you trust and support us in this decision. We are determined to continue along this path together.”

Reasons for Scholz’s nomination

The main motivating factors behind Scholz’s nomination are as follows:

  • Scholz has been remarkably successful in running the country during the COVID-19 crisis, in particular while Merkel was self-isolating in March; during that time, Scholz chaired cabinet meetings, which provided him with a huge political opportunity to present himself as a figure fighting for social cohesion.
  • Scholz played a pivotal role in securing €750 billion in EU funding to help employees and companies in EU member States recover from the crisis. The funding was approved on June 21 following major negotiations. In doing so, Scholz broke away from Germany’s historic commitment to maintaining a balanced EU budget.
  • Scholz is politically experienced: he was elected to the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) in 1998, and served as mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, during which time his policies became less radical. Since March 2018, he has served as Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor in his party’s coalition government with the Christian Democratic Union (Merkel’s party).
  • Thanks to his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Scholz is the third most popular political figure in Germany (after Merkel), and opinion polls show that he is one of the most popular figures from within the Social Democratic Party among German citizens. This popularity could boost his chances of success in the 2021 elections.
  • Scholz has a positive relationship with France, which became apparent during the pandemic, in particular through his close cooperation with his French counterpart. Scholz succeeded in passing the EU emergency financial package, and has shown solidarity in providing treatment and essential protective equipment. In June, the French Minister of the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire praised Scholz for helping to airlift six French citizens with COVID-19 to Kiel hospital, where his brother worked, in an expensive life-saving mission paid for by the German government.

For these reasons, the Social Democratic Party has decided to throw its weight behind Scholz in an attempt to restore the political hegemony that it held in Germany until 2002. The party is keen to use the ongoing crisis and the likelihood of a second wave of infections to present Scholz as a strong candidate and to gain support among German voters.

Scholz’s chances of success

Despite the obstacles faced, there are several factors that may boost Scholz’s chances of success in 2021, especially if he is able to hold on to the popularity that he has gained during the COVID‑19 pandemic:

1. Scholz popularity has grown as a result of his ability to balance pragmatism and social cohesion within a favorable political environment geared toward confronting the impact of the pandemic. This was evident in his efforts to provide emergency funding to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on citizens, and his ability to lead Germany during Merkel’s isolation, during which he developed an image of himself as a leader seeking social cohesion. The Social Democrats are hoping that Scholz’s transformation during the pandemic from strict custodian of the public finances to father of a massive economic stimulus package with social dimensions for German citizens will win them more support during the upcoming elections.

2. Scholz’s political discourse has proven him to be disciplined and a courageous decision-maker, as well as capable of reassuring citizens about their future post-pandemic. When Scholz was asked in March whether he believed that the euro was in danger, he replied: “The euro is very stable. We are strong enough to support the euro. We want to do that, and we will do that.” He has also reassured citizens and companies, stating that: “We will do everything in our power to ensure that companies and jobs that could not withstand the crisis are rebuilt once it is over.”

3. Scholz has the increasing support of his party in the upcoming elections. The Social Democratic Party, the oldest and largest political party in Germany, is betting on Scholz as their best chance of regaining control of the government. Scholz recently won the support of the party’s parliamentary group, and various ministers have announced their support for his candidacy. Rolf Mützenich, chair of the party’s parliamentary group, has said that: “Olaf is able to lead our country even through difficult times.”

4. Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has announced that she will not run in the 2021 elections and that she will be stepping down from the presidency of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, following allegations of collusion between the party and the ultra-nationalist Alternative for Germany party in Thuringia, the repercussions of which may be a boon for Scholz.

There are two main obstacles to Scholz succeeding Merkel as chancellor:

1. The Social Democrats, who for decades competed with Merkel’s Christian Democrats in an attempt to dominate German politics, have not won a national election since 2002, and are now ranked third in most opinion polls behind the conservatives (Merkel’s party) and the growing Green party. This weakens Scholz’s chances of success in the 2021 elections.

2. Scholz will face competition from candidates both from the Christian Democratic Union and from the Greens, who will field a candidate for the first time. Although the Christian Democratic Union has postponed the announcement of its candidate until December 2020, owing to the ongoing pandemic, health minister Jens Spahn – Germany’s second most popular politician – is one of the possible candidates to succeed Merkel within the party and as chancellor. If Spahn is chosen, Scholz will be at a disadvantage.

Neither the Social Democrats nor the Christian Democrats will be able to compete with the Greens on environmental issues. If the Social Democrats continue to refuse to rein in immigration, they are also unlikely to win back many working-class voters who want “social justice”. Even a change in stance on immigration is no guarantee of success, however; in Denmark, the Social Democrats failed to win more votes despite adopting a tougher stance on immigration, and managed to win the last election only thanks to the collapse of the far-right party.

Conclusion

Although Scholz does stand a chance of winning the race for the chancellery in 2021, it is still too early to say for sure. His success will be determined by several factors, primarily whether he can maintain his current level of popularity, especially given the ongoing developments in the COVID‑19 pandemic and the likelihood of a second wave of infections. He will also be dependent on his party’s influence over voters, who are unlikely to readily relinquish the trust placed in the Christian Democratic Party over 18 years ago.

Scholz’s chances of success will also depend on who is chosen as the Christian Democratic Party candidate, their level of popularity, the party’s ability to drum up support for them and their ideas, and whether they have the backing of Merkel, especially as the recent crisis has restored the public’s confidence in the current Chancellor.

Nonetheless, Scholz may yet stand the best chance of winning, particularly as he is expected to build his campaign on the back of his successes achieved under the constraints of the ruling coalition. He may also be able to present himself to voters as an extension of the political and economic stability achieved under Merkel, which would boost voter confidence in him.

* Researcher specializing in European affairs.

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