Angela Merkel’s decision to quit Germany’s political stage after 16 years as chancellor left millions of votes up for grabs. In Sunday’s election, Olaf Scholz seized them with both hands — and won.
From the start of the campaign Scholz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, doggedly targeted the many Germans who had backed Merkel in the last four elections but had no strong allegiance to her Christian Democratic Union.
“They are the Merkel Sozis,” said one Scholz aide — people who “voted CDU/CSU while Merkel was in charge but could [now] contemplate voting SPD or Green”.
“They’re people who appreciate Merkel’s unpretentiousness, her good sense of humour, her calmness — and see exactly the same qualities in Olaf,” he added.
The approach paid off, with spectacular results. Just months ago, the SPD was languishing at around 15 per cent in the polls. On Sunday it won the election with 25.7 per cent of the vote, and the CDU/CSU slumped to the worst result in its history.
Throughout the campaign, Scholz had stressed that this election would be different from those before it. For the first time in Germany’s postwar history, an incumbent chancellor was not standing for re-election. His belief was that Merkel quitting the stage meant voters would choose the candidate best qualified to fill her shoes, regardless of party.
Speaking to the Financial Times in June, Scholz said the focus in this year’s election would be less on who had the best policies than on “which person do we want to run the country”. Most voters, he said, would ultimately decide it should be him.
Scholz turned out to be right. He was able to present himself as Merkel’s natural successor, despite coming from another party. The virtues classically attributed to Merkel — pragmatism, sobriety, dependability, and a wealth of experience in office — seemed to transfer magically from the chancellor to her finance minister.
“Scholz was able to slip into the role of incumbent,” said Andrea Römmele, professor of communication in politics at the Hertie School in Berlin.
The chancellor’s decision to bow out also lifted a curse that had dogged the SPD for years. As junior partner in her “grand coalition” for the past 8 years, it played a decisive role in shaping policy: it was thanks to the SPD that Germany introduced a minimum wage in 2015, for example. But voters routinely rewarded Merkel, not the Social Democrats, for these successes.
That changed this year. “Because Merkel wasn’t running again, the SPD was able to take the credit for all its achievements in government — which the chancellor would have claimed for herself if she’d been standing,” said Römmele.
Scholz’s other important insight was that changes in Germany’s political landscape could ultimately benefit the SPD more than its conservative rival. Asked in the summer how he thought the Social Democrats could recover in the polls, he expressed a confidence that seemed misplaced at the time — but which in retrospect was justified.
“The era when one party got 40 per cent or more of the vote is over,” he told the FT. “We have a multi-party system where the big parties have many fewer seats than they used to — and that means that only minor changes in voter behaviour can create completely new constellations.”
It was a prescient view. Scholz is now eyeing an SPD-led, three-party coalition, the first in Germany since the 1950s.
Scholz’s path to the top has not been straightforward. Unloved in his own party, the former federal labour minister and mayor of Hamburg suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2019 contest for the SPD leadership, losing out to a pair of little-known leftwingers.
Many Social Democrats are suspicious of him, identifying him with contentious labour and welfare reforms pushed through by Gerhard Schröder the last Social Democrat chancellor, under whom Scholz served as SPD secretary-general.
Saskia Esken, one of the pair who defeated him in 2019, even cast doubt in a TV interview that year on whether Scholz was a “true, steadfast Social Democrat”.
Yet despite the party’s mistrust, it nominated Scholz as its candidate for chancellor in August last year. At the time, the SPD was at a nadir in the polls, and few in the party expected him to be able to turn round its fortunes. Cynics said the party’s leftwingers saw him as a convenient scapegoat if the SPD went down to a crushing electoral defeat.
Some in Berlin also said the decision to appoint Scholz had come far too early — more than a year before the election. Yet it turned out to be a smart move. “It meant we were able to create a customised campaign exactly tailored to Scholz”, said Jens Zimmermann, an SPD MP. “We could put together a very good, well-thought-through plan of action.”
Scholz hardly put a foot wrong — unlike his rivals. Armin Laschet, candidate for the CDU/CSU, saw his poll numbers plummet after laughing during a visit to areas devastated by flooding. Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate, had to fight off accusations of plagiarism and embellishing her CV.
Scholz, in contrast, came across as a seasoned politician people said they could trust. He was credited with deftly steering Germany’s public finances through the pandemic.
He also ran an uncluttered campaign based on simple promises — a higher minimum wage, stable pensions, more affordable housing and a carbon-neutral economy.
And all the time, the SPD — a rambunctious party long troubled by infighting — stood solidly behind their candidate. “We have not been this united in years,” said Zimmermann.
Running such a personalised campaign so tightly focused on Scholz the politician could have backfired. But it seems to have paid dividends.
Franziska Reisener, a pensioner, was one of dozens of people who gathered in Potsdam last Saturday to hear his last campaign speech. She said she’d be voting SPD, largely based on her faith in Scholz. “He’s by the far the most credible candidate of the three,” the pensioner said. “He’s the one who’ll get things done.”