Scholz Steals From Merkel’s Playbook to Shake Up German Vote
(Bloomberg) -- As Angela Merkel prepares to hand over the reins of German power, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is making the case that he’s her rightful heir and it appears to be working.
A distant third just weeks ago, Scholz’s Social Democrats have moved level with her conservatives, and even lead in several polls. If the momentum holds until the Sept. 26 election, it would mark one of the most remarkable political turnarounds in German history.
He cemented his front-runner status on Sunday when he weathered repeated attacks from conservative contender Armin Laschet and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock. The first of three televised debates between the candidates was a crucial chance to sway voters and Scholz remained steady.
Laschet tried to sustain an attack by pushing him on military spending, while Baerbock said Scholz and his party didn’t have what it takes to lead Germany into the future.
Both fell short. Scholz gave a competent, technocratic performance -- much like what Germans are accustomed to with Merkel. After the 100-minute clash, Scholz was picked as the winner by 36% of viewers, according to a Forsa poll for broadcasters RTL/ntv. Baerbock was second with 30%, while Laschet was last with 25%.
Scholz’s SPD has picked up some voters disaffected with Merkel’s CDU party, though most are coming from the Greens and the previously undecided, according to Peter Matuschek, head of politics research at Forsa.
“But we really have to look cautiously, if this holds over the next weeks,” Matuschek said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
Read more: Scholz’s Chances of Succeeding Merkel Rise to 51%: Bookmakers
Scholz has engineered the turnaround by unabashedly, and at times playfully, portraying himself as the continuity candidate for Merkel, who remains Germany’s most popular politician even after 16 years in power. The trained labor lawyer and former Hamburg mayor is second in the rankings.
In a photo series in the Sueddeutsche newspaper billed as a wordless interview, Scholz smirks while posing with Merkel’s characteristic hand gesture -- thumb and fingers pressed together in a diamond shape. An ad in a woman’s magazine proclaimed that he has what it takes to be “Kanzlerin” (the feminine form of chancellor).
“He’s now trying to create the impression that he’s kind of the successor to Angela Merkel -- which of course isn’t true,” Markus Soeder, the head of the Bavarian conservative party who sought the candidacy earlier this year, said in an interview with ARD television on Sunday.
Scholz’s campaign has effectively been a variation of Merkel’s 2017 run, which relied on voter familiarity and was summed up in her debate quip: “You know me.”
While Scholz isn’t quite at that level, four years in the public eye as vice chancellor and the steward of German taxpayer money gives him an edge over his rivals. Laschet and Baerbock were largely unknown on the national stage before the campaign and can’t claim Scholz’s level of government experience.
With less of a track record to sustain his two rivals, gaffes like Laschet’s laughing in the midst of flood wreckage and Baerbock plagiarizing passages of a book were judged harshly. Meanwhile, Scholz has so far shrugged off links to the collapse of Wirecard AG and the cum-ex tax scandal.
His rise was facilitated by a head start. He was named the SPD’s candidate in August 2020, eight months before the Greens nominated Baerbock and the conservative bloc resolved a messy contest for its candidacy.
That lead time was critical as it gave Scholz the chance to offset a major weakness: his party.
Like other center-left movements across Europe, Germany’s Social Democrats have been in steady decline for years. While current polling numbers are just a shade above the party’s weakest result in 2017, the conservatives are faring even worse in the race to fill the vacuum left by Merkel.
Laschet was elected as head of the Christian Democrats in January in a tight contest to replace Merkel protegee Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. He then promptly faced a challenge for the candidacy from Soeder. The CSU head remains more popular, exposing Laschet’s deficiencies and prompting some officials to openly question the group’s choice.
The turbulence engulfing the normally-steady conservative bloc is a departure from recent elections. The Social Democrats have put aside internal divisions to rally behind Scholz, who’s squarely at the center of the campaign while the party plays a subordinate role.
Photos of Scholz dominate campaign posters. By contrast, the conservatives picture a broad spectrum of Germans in an effort to emphasize the party and portray it as a unifying force.
While Scholz can play with the notion of embracing Merkel’s legacy, her bloc’s candidate needs to be more careful. The CDU is eager for a new start, which means Laschet needs to keep Merkel at arm’s length to avoid being overshadowed.
Scholz’s party could still stand in the way of his chancellery ambitions. That’s because polls suggest a three-way coalition of parties will be required for a parliamentary majority to elect the next chancellor.
With the Greens a potential partner for either the SPD or the conservatives, the Free Democrats could be the kingmaker. The pro-business party has made it clear it prefers an alliance with the conservatives.
At the same time, the SPD has moved further from Scholz’s centrist path. Left-leaning politicians Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken were elected by the base last year, beating a Scholz-led duo.
The Social Democrats nominated Scholz because he was the party’s most recognizable figure and was willing to take on what seemed like an unenviable role at a time when support for the conservatives was roughly double the SPD’s.
But the diverging agendas could ultimately spill out into the open. Scholz already faces growing calls to rule out an alliance with the anti-capitalist Left party, a step he refused to take on Sunday.
Officials in Scholz’s team acknowledge that the main concern is translating his popularity into votes for the Social Democrats, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Meanwhile, the campaign continues to push Scholz to the forefront. A new ad features highlights from Scholz’s career, including nods to his pandemic-aid “bazooka,” and draws a link to former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- the only SPD official mentioned.
“We’ve achieved a lot, and now it’s about accomplishing much more,” Scholz says in the video. “That’s why I would like to serve our country as chancellor.”
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