Last week former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder sent shock waves through the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) with hard-hitting criticisms of current party leader Andrea Nahles. Less widely noticed was his praise for Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current finance minister and vice chancellor -- “a man who understands business,” according to Schröder.
Scholz has made no secret of his ambitions to be the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in the 2021 election campaign and even party head Nahles has supposedly agreed to support him.
The vice chancellor, not Nahles, has taken the credit for many recent policy initiatives from the coalition government, including increases to the minimum wage, the phasing out of coal-powered electricity, and new reforms to the pension system.
Alternative to the alternative
But many obstacles stand in the way of Scholz’s ambitions. For one thing, the SPD’s support has collapsed alarmingly in recent years. For over a century, the party was a dominant force in German politics, but it now languishes at around 15 percent in opinion polls, overtaken by the environmentalist Green party and the populist right wing Alternative for Germany.
But Scholz thinks the party has the potential to recover. Two years ago, the SPD enjoyed a brief renaissance in the polls when Martin Schulz took over the leadership. This upsurge proved temporary and faded away by the 2017 elections.
But Scholz believes that interlude proved latent SPD support exists, and that it can be mobilized with a good policy mix and the right leadership. Never short on confidence, he thinks he is that leader. In terms of policy, he has focused on pensions, emphasizing the message that the SPD is the party that will best protect Germany’s generous welfare state system.
He’s getting help from the SPD, which this month also announced broad reforms to the unemployment system. Most crucially, the party wants to eliminate the long-term unemployment program known as “Hartz IV” – now almost a slur for the unemployed – and replace it with a basic income that is higher than current benefits.
But Scholz hasn’t gotten where he is without stepping on some toes. Among party activists, he’s seen as a right-wing technocrat, out of touch with the party’s left-wing roots. He has never done well in internal party elections: not long ago he was made vice-chair with just 59 percent support of the membership, not a glowing endorsement. His current focus on social policies may be an attempt to reach out to members, as if to say: I’m more left-wing than you think I am.
The vice-chancellor also has powerful opponents. These include Sigmar Gabriel: the rambunctious former party leader. Gabriel stepped down as foreign minister a year ago, but remains a popular figure in the country at large. Rumors have him planning a comeback.
As an alternative, Scholz has been building his own political position – as both vice-chancellor and finance minister – into a possible electioneering base. With one eye on the election, he has noticeably strengthened his public relations team, to better project his image as a modern, capable leader.
Scholz’s role as vice-chancellor, Merkel’s direct deputy, could also be important in the next elections in another way. Merkel has promised not to run for the chancellery in 2021. Her chosen successor, the new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is comparatively inexperienced.
As a deputy chancellor and finance minister, Scholz could look experienced and statesmanlike in 2021. But there is no guarantee he would win a contest against Kramp-Karrenbauer: current polls show her the more popular figure. Scholz has under three years.
Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Jan Hildebrand leads Handelsblatt's financial policy coverage from Berlin and is deputy managing editor of Handelsblatt's Berlin office. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]