Olaf Scholz: Who is Angela Merkel’s successor as German chancellor?

Labour lawyer who emerged from left-wing student politics in Hamburg to become city mayor

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 08 December 2021 08:00
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<p>Germany’s chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz </p>

Germany’s chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz

Germany finally has a successor to Angela Merkel as Olaf Scholz of the social democratic party (SPD) agreed a deal to form a power-sharing coalition government with the pro-business Free Democrats and Greens, ending weeks of uncertainty following the inconclusive outcome of September’s election.

Ms Merkel did not seek re-election for a fifth term and her parliamentary bloc, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU), performed poorly at the polls.

However, while both the centre-left SPD and Greens made record gains, neither secured a majority.

Mr Scholz’s own party overwhelmingly backed the coalition proposal at a conference on Saturday, followed by the conservative Free Democrats and the Greens at gatherings of their own, clearing the path for the lower house of the Bundestag to elect its new chancellor on Wednesday.

The alliance between these unlikely bedfellows, the first such grouping at a national level, brings to an end 16 years of conservative-led government under Ms Merkel, who has been holding the fort as caretaker chancellor since the vote.

The Free Democrats previously governed West Germany as junior partners to the SPD under Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt between 1969 and 1982 but have since largely allied themselves with the centre-right Union bloc spearheaded by Ms Merkel.

“This is a coalition agreement for policies of the centre, which won’t shift our country to the left but wants to move it forward,” their leader Christian Lindner, who will now become Germany’s new finance minister, told his party over the weekend.

The new government is expected to focus on tackling Covid-19 as cases soar in western Europe, transitioning Germany to a green economy to rein in climate change and on upgrading the country’s broadband infrastructure.

It is also being tipped to pursue liberal policies on issues like the legalisation of recreational cannabis and citizenship but will not raise taxes at the insistence of the Free Democrats.

Mr Scholz, 63, has wasted no time in unveiling the members of his own party he intends to appoint to the Cabinet, naming epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach to the key post of health minister, Nancy Faeser as Germany’s first female interior minister and outgoing justice minister Christine Lambrecht as his new defence minister.

The Greens’ co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock will meanwhile become vice-chancellor and foreign minister respectively.

The same party’s Cem Ozdemir will become the new agriculture minister and Germany’s first Cabinet member of Turkish origin in the process.

As for Mr Scholz himself, he is a career lawyer and politician who has been Ms Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister since March 2018 under the previous coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats, placing him in charge of the public purse when the coronavirus arrived.

He embraced that responsibility and won fresh popularity by lifting constitutionally-enshrined borrowing limits to keep German businesses in the black and helping to negotiate the EU’s hefty £637bn recovery package.

He was born in Osnabruck, Lower Saxony, then in West Germany, on 14 June 1958. His parents were textile workers who raised him and his two brothers in Hamburg’s eastern Rahlstedt district.

Mr Scholz became involved in left-wing politics aged 17 when he joined the SPD and subsequently enrolled at the University of Hamburg in 1978 to study law, specialising in labour and employment relations.

He was first called to the bar in 1985 and practised as a lawyer until he was elected as a member of the Bundestag in 1998, serving until 2011.

Olaf Scholz has been a member of the SPD since he was 17

Mr Scholz also served in the Hamburg state government from 2001 until his election as the Social Democrats’ general secretary a year later, working alongside party leader and then-German chancellor Gerhard Schroder in an era of divisive welfare reforms.

He stepped down to become the SPD’s chief whip in the Bundestag in 2004 and served in Ms Merkel’s first government as minister of labour and social affairs in 2007.

When the SPD broke with her bloc after the 2009 election, Mr Scholz returned to lead his party in Hamburg and became its deputy leader.

After winning the 2011 state election, he became his home city’s mayor, holding the post until 2018 before leaving to reunite with Ms Merkel, his tenure in charge of Hamburg defined by a focus on housing construction, schools, modernising its famous port and the completion of the delayed Elbphilharmonie concert hall.

“Over the years, politicians and journalists have reached for many descriptors to capture Scholz’s signature impassive demeanour – comparing him at times to a smurf, a robot, and a mid-level bank clerk,” writes Al Jazeera’s Ruairi Casey.

He quotes Hamburg newspaper editor Mathias Adler, a long-time observer, who describes Mr Scholz as a reliable dealmaker who has “self-confidence that borders on arrogance” and who will not fail to be “his own man” as chancellor.

Germany’s new leader promises that his government represents “a new start” for the country but he takes office at a challenging time given the perilous state of the pandemic, the economy and the planet.

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