In a surprise move this week, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the SPD, got well ahead of the game by announcing that Finance Minister Olaf Scholz will be the party’s Chancellor candidate in next year’s election. Although there has long been speculation about Scholz’s nomination, the choice of candidate has been fiercely disputed in the party. However, Scholz was unanimously nominated by the party’s executive and presidium, and a vote at a special party conference was not necessary.
Announcing the nomination, party leaders Esken and Walter-Borjans said, “We know that this decision is an unexpected turn for some….We ask for trust in our path. We have decided to go this way together.” One of the reasons the announcement was unexpected is that Esken and Walter-Borjans, who defeated Scholz in his bid to become party leader in December, are on the left of the party and opponents of Scholz’s moderate political leanings. Indeed, Walter-Borjans said last year that Scholz should not be a Chancellor candidate, and Esken cast doubt on his credentials as a social democrat.
This early nomination and display of unanimity in a party which has struggled with bitter factional divisions shows that the party is seriously attempting to address the faults of the 2017 election campaign, which were identified in party’s brutally honest post-election report, Learning from Mistakes. Then, the party did not nominate Martin Schulz as Chancellor candidate until January 2017, just 8 months before the election (following the surprise announcement by party leader Sigmar Gabriel that he would not run). The subsequent campaign was poorly-run, lacked a clear message, and the party appeared divided.
General Secretary Lars Klingbeil said this week, “We haven’t stumbled into the candidacy and now have more than a year until the federal election.” The contrast with 2017 is clear. While the CDU/CSU Union is likely to be busy looking for its candidate for Chancellor for a while, work on the election programme has already begun in the SPD.
The Süddeustche Zeitung sees the unity on Scholz’s nomination as a triumph for Klingbeil; the paper reported that he managed to get an agreement on Scholz’s nomination amongst the party leadership in July, and to keep it unanimous until the announcement this week.
In his speech accepting the nomination, Scholz announced that a new era has begun and emphasised, “I want to win…..We have faith that we will get well over 20% of the vote.”
So, what has been the response in Germany to the SPD’s announcement?
Does Scholz have what it takes?
Despite Scholz’s defeat in December’s SPD leadership election, he has long been the SPD’s most popular politician amongst voters (if not on the left of his own party). Since the corona pandemic, his popularity has increased further, due to his crisis management, swift delivery of financial support to businesses and individuals, and economic stimulus programme. In August, his approval ratings were 57% (in third place behind Angela Merkel with 70% and CDU Health Minister Jens Spahn with 60%).
The Zeit argued that the main obstacle to a Scholz-Chancellorship is not Scholz himself, but his party, pointing out that if he were in the CDU, then he could probably already be proclaimed the next Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany – “he is one of the most popular politicians in the country – and one of the most experienced in a crisis.”
The Süddeustche Zeitung wrote that Scholz seems controlled and self-confident: “The change in Olaf Scholz over the past year is astonishing. Eight months ago he was still the nation’s loser when party members did not elect him and his partner Klara Geywitz to lead the SPD. And now he has suddenly reached the peak of his career to date and has been the candidate for Chancellor of this same SPD since Monday. The 62-year-old goes on Sandra Maischberger’s talk show and says at the start: “I urgently want to go to the Chancellery, as Chancellor.” He seems almost euphoric.”
Scholz’s skills as a politician are well regarded, although he has been criticised in the past for lacking empathy. The Zeit has described him as “competent, calm, factual,” and noted that “Scholz decided a long time ago to embody pure reason in an ever crazier world.” The Tagesschau noted that Scholz “is a friend of the laconic and likes to portray himself as hands-on,” and that one of his sayings is, ‘We can do that together, we’ll manage it’, “which usually spreads confidence rather than political tension.” His credo is “to show solidarity – in the party as well as in society as a whole. Social Democrat Scholz therefore sees the corona pandemic as a major test for state action: “(the pandemic) shows that political models that follow the motto that everyone should do best on their own are wrong,” he said.”
The Spiegel wrote that “Scholz has so far cut a good figure. In the fight against the economic consequences of the pandemic, he became the master of government aid worth billions of euros” However, continued the article, he has problems ahead, including the Wirecard affair (because banking supervision and money laundering controls failed in the case of Wirecard) and the risk of a future wave of bankruptcies among German companies, as a longer-term result of the corona crisis (he will be confronted with his promise from the early days of the crisis: “We can help everyone and we will do that too.”)
The Welt has argued that the image of Scholz is that of “the crisis manager who pulled out the “bazooka” to protect Germans from the social decline that is threatening to come out of the crisis.” Yet the paper argues that his record as finance minister is mixed and that, “one of the open questions with a view to the Bundestag election campaign is how much Scholz opposes the demands from the left for more state influence and higher spending.”
The leftwing paper taz was enthusiastic about the nomination, arguing that it was the best news of the week, “for everyone who is still hoping for a chance of left-wing politics in the federal government, i.e. for a real change of government after the general election next year.” The reason for optimism wrote taz is that “the SPD is relying on a red-red-green (SPD, Left Party, Green Party) coalition.” And, argues taz, Scholz is the man to pick up votes from the centre ground, which a left wing alliance needs to win a majority – although the paper’s reasoning for that is not exactly flattering: “The man not only exudes the odour of pronounced boredom, which many read as calm, even reliable serenity, he has also shown in corona times that he can do crisis.”
Can the SPD win enough votes to form a government?
This is a major question, given the SPD’s parlous opinion poll ratings. From a historically low vote of 20.5% in 2017, the party has been consistently polling on around 14% – 16% in the last year, and is in third place, behind the CDU/CSU Union and the Green Party. So at the moment an SPD-led coalition looks a lot less likely than a CDU/CSU Union led government, possibly with the Greens as a coalition partner
ZDF reported that the SPD leadership is counting on the fact that the party with Scholz as Chancellor candidate will overtake the Greens in the final stages of the election campaign.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung argued that the SPD sees a chance in the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel will not run for the Union; the message will be, if you want stability in 2021, when the consequences of the corona crisis are still with us, you will find this stability in Scholz.
As Merkel has done in the past, Scholz can rely on the message: You know me.
The Zeit, too, sees an opportunity for Scholz. While it is argued by some in the party that a more left wing approach is needed to establish a clear identity for the party, this election may be different: “The last federal elections had one thing in common: Angela Merkel, a popular and socially democratised candidate, ran for re-election. That will not be the case in the coming year. Rather, it could be that the Union is putting up a candidate who must and wants to distance himself from Merkel. The cards are being reshuffled for the first time in over ten years.”
Indeed, since Scholz’s nomination, an Insa poll has shown a two point increase for the SPD (to 18%).
The same poll showed Scholz well ahead of nearly all the other possible Chancellor candidates: in a direct contest against the CDU’s Friedrich Merz, and the Green Party’s Robert Habeck, Scholz would win by 20.6% to 13.7% (Merz) and 13.5% (Habeck)
The main threat appears to be the CSU’s Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder – 26.4% percent would vote for Söder against 18.2% for Scholz and 13% for Habeck.
Additionally, although Forsa found that 44% of the public agreed that Scholz could do the job of Chancellor, only 25% would actually welcome him as Chancellor, and 63% would like someone else to succeed Angela Merkel.
If the SPD wins enough votes, who could the party form the next government with?
The official party position is that the SPD would to seek a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party, something Scholz has not absolutely committed to, since there are open questions about Left Party policies, such as the party’s opposition to NATO.
Indeed, the idea of a coalition with the Left Party may not go down well with voters. The Süddeustche Zeitung pointed out that on a talk show this week, Scholz said,”There are still many questions about the Left Party’s ability to govern, there will certainly be a lot to discuss. That will be a good job for you.” Another possible problem is that, since Scholz is regarded as a moderate politician, voters could see an alliance between Scholz and the Left Party as an unrealistic proposition.
Scholz is a candidate who, when he was General Secretary of the party, defended the controversial Hartz IV welfare reforms, and who as Finance Minister has adhered to his conservative predecessor’s balanced budget (black zero) policy; this was not popular with the Left Party, or with the left of the SPD. However, early signs are that the Left Party would support cooperation Scholz: The Taggeschau reported that although the chairman of the party, Bernd Riexinger, indicated doubts as to whether Scholz was the right candidate, at the weekend, the SPD leadership announced the abolition of the Hartz IV system and higher taxes for the rich. “These are all things that are going in the right direction,” said Riexinger, “I’m excited to see whether Olaf Scholz is going in the same direction.”
ZDF reported that top Left Party politicians such as Dietmar Bartsch and Katja Kipping “reacted approvingly to such an option, even if the party chairman emphasised that Scholz was not her “favourite candidate.”
If the Greens stay ahead of the SPD, a Green-led coalition would be a possibility. Party leader Esken has said that the SPD could accept a role as a junior partner in a Green-led coalition. “It’s not about vanity. It’s about doing good politics for the people in the country, of course. And the SPD is ready to take on such a responsibility.”
Theoretically, an SPD-Green-FDP coalition is possible. However, tensions would be expected between the SPD/Greens and the FDP, for example over economic and tax policy and the SPD thinks it is unlikely that the FDP would join a government led by the Greens.
An SPD-CDU/CSU coalition with the SPD at its head would be a theoretical possibility, especially since voters have approved of the current cooperation between the parties during the corona crisis; but Scholz has ruled out a continuation of the coalition with the CDU as the largest party. “There will be no continuation of the grand coalition. There will be no such thing as a government of these three parties after 21.”
Can Scholz carry his party with him?
So far, the left of the party, which rejected Scholz as leader in December, are officially behind him. Unity is the message of the day.
Walter-Borjans has emphasised that, “We have an honest relationship of trust,” adding there is “no suspicious eyeing of the leadership of the party, parliamentary group or our government team,” reported the Spiegel.
In the last months, there had been reports that the leaders could back parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich as candidate. But in an interview with the Tagesschau, Mützenich also threw himself behind Scholz, saying,”I am firmly convinced that everyone wants to work to ensure that the unity, which is currently prevailing, lasts,” adding, “It takes discipline.”
On that note, Jusos (Young Socialist) leader Kevin Kühnert, also an opponent of Scholz, “looks tense while he explains verbatim why the party left rejected the election of Scholz as SPD leader, but now supports him as a candidate for chancellor,” saying that, “Jusos are also capable of learning,” noted the Tagesschau. While Jusos “are not totally jubilant,” Scholz and the party left “do not have to marry,” Kühnert said. “After phone calls in all directions” he knows that an “overwhelming majority” supports the decision.
Others were also amused about Künhert’s endorsement of Scholz: the Spiegel wrote, “What (Kühnert) was now announcing in a somewhat awkward manner would have been unthinkable months ago. Kühnert was Scholz’s opponent. (Scholz) stands for the party establishment, for the grand coalition, which is not loved by many Social Democrats, for the black zero….When Gerhard Schröder implemented Agenda 2010 in the party, Scholz had to defend it as general secretary and thus became the enemy of the left party.”
However, Kühnert has made clear that the left party does not want to be fobbed off, such as with their demands for a faster exit from coal; and Jusos is demanding that Scholz lead the party into the federal election campaign with a left profile.
Some on the left have publicly said that they are not happy with the nomination: the Tagesschau, for example, reported one SPD MP as saying, “The recipe of the past few years of fishing in the milieu of conservative and liberal voters will not work this time either.”
What are the other parties saying about his nomination?
Norbert Röttgen, one of the CDU leadership candidates, described the nomination as an implausible solution – “The SPD already had some candidates for Chancellor in the past who did not fit in with the party and its direction,” – while the CDU Youth wing, the Junge Union argued, “How a left-wing program with a focus on green-red-red fits the candidate Olaf Scholz remains a mystery.”
The CSU’s Markus Söder accused the party of interfering with management of the corona pandemic, saying that the fact that the SPD is now starting the election campaign will be devastating for further cooperation in combating the corona pandemic. CDU leadership candidate and Söder’s rival as the Union’s Chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, also complained about the inappropriate timing of the nomination.
For the Greens, Robert Habeck said that the “the surprise was limited. We expected it, now it has happened. As expected.” He said that the candidacy will change nothing, but also criticised the timing of the announcement in the middle of the corona crisis.
FDP leader Christian Lindner said the SPD strategy was “enigmatic”. “Yesterday, a coalition offer to the Left Party and the green light for Chancellor Habeck – today, Olaf Scholz, a Chancellor candidate from the right-wing of the party.” The FDP general secretary Linda Teuteberg spoke of, “the SPD model, which has been known for years, of a minister respected by the population but not supported by the party as Chancellor candidate, and the contradiction between a pragmatic candidate and a left-wing program.”
The Alternative for Germany leader Jörg Meuthen described Scholz as a “Trojan horse” who would “collect bourgeois votes for the dark red Esken-Borjans-Kühnert-SPD.”
What is the business community saying about it?
The Welt reported that businesses have been afraid of a left-governing coalition after the next election. Large business associations such as the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the Federation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) have been reluctant to react to the possibility, while others such as the Association of Family Entrepreneurs have expressed concern.
However amongst economists, there is faith in Scholz’s competence as a economic manager, if not faith in the party: “Olaf Scholz’s candidacy for chancellor gives economic scientists courage. A return to socialism is not to be feared with him,” commented the Welt.
The Handesblatt also reported on business concerns about a Scholz Chancellorship. Noting that Scholz is a regarded as a well-respected politician who understands the economy, businesses are nevertheless concerned about the leftwards direction of the party and about divisions in the party, and fear SDP cooperation with the Left Party.
“Who, if not him?”
Despite the problems Scholz faces, the Zeit in an article entitled ‘Who, if not him?’ has argued that, “the decline of the SPD is historical, but not irreversible. The party has already changed and the world around it has changed so much more. In view of the reorganisation after the Merkel era, the nomination of a left-wing candidate would have been the wrong conclusion. That does not mean that Olaf Scholz will actually lead the SPD out of the crisis. But right now, if not him, then nobody.”
It appears that the party has resolved to fight the opposition in 2021, not itself. But there is over a year to go until the election; plenty of time for dissent to appear, and cracks to show. It remains to be seen whether the party has, indeed, learned the lessons of 2017.