Ahead of the Bundestag elections on Sunday, just how did Olaf Scholz become the top candidate to be chancellor?
The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lived through hard times. Governing the country as part of the GroKo (grand coalition) with the conservative CDU/CSU union since 2013, the social democrats were constantly struggling not to lose their profile under the Christian-democrat chancellor, Angela Merkel. With Merkel’s ability to incorporate social-democratic positions into her policy, public support for the SPD continually declined, reaching a low of only 11 per cent in the polls at the end of 2019.
Back then, political commentators widely agreed that the SPD had lost its status as one of the main ‘people’s parties’ (Volksparteien). Now, with the elections to the Bundestag on Sunday, the SPD has surpassed all parties, lying around 4 per cent ahead of the CDU/CSU. And German voters have clearly indicated that they want the SPD candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to be Merkel’s successor. How could this have happened?
The SPD had to suffer a lot during the last electoral term. For Scholz, acting vice-chancellor and federal minister of finance, the last few years were not particularly pleasant either.
With the publication in October 2018 of the so-called ‘CumEx’ files, documenting large-scale tax evasion in Germany, the finance ministry came under heavy criticism. In November 2019, Scholz lost the election for chair of his party—being vice-chancellor, this was seen as a shameful failure. In light of the low percentages for the SPD in the polls, the new joint heads of the party, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, went so far as to query the appointment of an SPD chancellor candidate for the next federal election at all. In June 2020 a further scandal, around the illegal business practices of the German company Wirecard, shook up the Ministry of Finance again, leading to big losses for investors. And many critics made Scholz responsible for not having prevented such a financial fraud.
Still, in May 2021—due to a lack of realistic alternatives—Scholz was elected as the chancellor candidate of the SPD. In the polls the party continued to stagnate at around 15 per cent and Scholz’s constantly-repeated ambition to become chancellor was treated as one of the best running jokes in German politics. Yet now, in comparison with his two main rivals, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Armin Laschet of the CDU, he is widely perceived as the one who should next occupy the chancellery.
Scholz’s unexpected rise is based on three pillars: strategy, personality … and experience with sausages.
Critics used to call Scholz the ‘Scholzomat’, because he apparently behaved like a robot. But at least he understands that elections are not a sprint—more an exhausting combination of marathon and hurdle race.
The last SPD chancellor candidate, in 2017, the former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, might have a very similar name but started at a very different pace. After his nomination more than half a year before the federal elections, the SPD soared in the polls and the media spoke of the ‘Schulz train’ (Schulz-Zug).
Schulz was praised as the SPD candidate who would finally take over from Merkel after three terms, with at one point half of Germans polled favouring him for the job (only a third preferring that Merkel remain). On election night, however, it became clear that the ‘Schulz train’ had lost momentum, arriving at its destination with only 20.5 per cent for the SPD.
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Scholz did the opposite. For months after his designation as the official candidate, the public did not really hear anything spectacular from him. Even though the media and the voters clearly didn’t believe in the SPD any more, he did … nothing. While others might have let emotions take over and given up or taken risky measures to gain some attention in the polls, he just continued to repeat: ‘I want to become German chancellor.’ On the eve of the election, miraculously it seems many Germans want that too.
Standing his ground
This stoic repetition of intent could have had a hypnotising effect. But more generally, the persistence Scholz displayed showed his character as a person who stands his ground, even if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. None of his competitors dropped out of the race. But the big difference between Scholz and the rest was that, even at the peak of public attention and electoral stress, he let the others make the mistakes—no matter how boring that made him look.
His ability to avoid major scandals during the campaign is especially noteworthy, as he is implicated in two parliamentary committee investigations, about CumEx and Wirecard. In March, Scholz also promised that he personally would took care of preparations for the vaccine rollout, announcing ‘ten million doses per week’—a number that would not be reached.
But Scholz somehow finds rhetorical ways of detaching himself from any personal responsibility by framing possible wrongdoings as technical or administrative processes, not as individual decisions. That makes everything so boring few seem eager to dig deeper. In the end, it is easier for political observers to take note of all his great plans for the future—and forget that his party has actually been in power for a while already.
Being the vice-chancellor since 2017 doesn’t necessarily make Scholz stand out as a candidate for radical change. Even the most interesting election programme could not hide the fact that he and his party already had quite a lot of time to do things better. But Scholz would not be the matchwinner of the campaign with his political agenda anyway. His main asset might simply be his personal appearance.
After the television ‘truels’ between the three chancellor candidates—Baerbock, Laschet and Scholz—surveys clearly indicated that Scholz was perceived as the most competent and trustworthy performer. It was not that he told viewers anything new: all his political statements coincided with the SPD‘s electoral programme, published back in May.
It might rather be his rhetoric that gives the impression of competence and trustworthiness: a clear, calm voice, a talking speed that is not too fast and not too slow, a very stable body language with slow hand movements and a facial expression revealing nothing but inner calm, no matter how strong the accusations against him. It is in this most extreme display of professional normality that Scholz has outplayed Baerbock and Laschet by far.
As banal as it sounds, being boring might be his major competitive advantage. But even if all the external prejudices about German culture would then be vindicated, is that really enough to win a federal election?
The German language knows a lot of metaphors and of course many are connected to very German things. When it comes to a situation where things are to be decided—a final showdown— Germans used to say: ‘Now it’s about the sausage’ (Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst). As a politician, Scholz is very German in this regard, because he is very experienced with situations that are about the sausage.
He also knows German voters very well. Because when it’s about the sausage, Germans tend to avoid experiments.
Ahead of an election which will conclude 16 years of Merkel as chancellor, German voters have discovered that, actually, Scholz is not so different from Merkel. He stands for political normality, for bureaucratic expertise and for very rational, predictable behaviour.
This obvious alignment with Merkel‘s political style is surely no coincidence. Scholz’s implicit presentation as Merkel’s natural successor went so far that she had publicly to confirm that he and she were not the same person. But that didn’t seem to change much the public support for a future chancellor Scholz.
Because, no matter the political challenges ahead, when it’s about the sausage Germans prefer not to change the recipe.