BERLIN — When Olaf Scholz asked his fellow Social Democrats to nominate him as their candidate for chancellor, some in his own camp publicly questioned whether the party would bother recruiting a candidate.
Germany’s oldest party not only followed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, but had fallen to third behind the Greens in the polls with a humiliating 14 percent. As late as June, the German media described the battle to succeed Ms Merkel as a two-way race between her conservatives and the emerging Green Party.
But with the national elections of 26 September fast approaching, Mr Scholz and his once moribund party have unexpectedly become the favorites to lead the next government in Europe’s largest democracy.
“It’s really moving to see how many citizens trust me as the next chancellor,” a beaming Mr. Scholz to hundreds of supporters at a recent campaign event in Berlin, standing in front of a giant screen proclaim, “Scholz will handle it.”
Ten months after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the US presidency for the Democrats, there is a real chance that Germany will be led by a center-left chancellor for the first time in 16 years. Since the second term of former President Bill Clinton, neither the White House nor the German chancellery have been in the hands of center-left leaders.
“The atmosphere is just great at the moment – we are almost in disbelief,” said Annika Klose, a Social Democrat candidate for parliament, watching Mr Scholz speak. “Since I joined the party in 2011, every election result has been worse than the last.”
It’s not that Germans have suddenly shifted to the left. Mr Scholz, who has been Mrs Merkel’s finance minister and vice-chancellor for the past four years, is in many ways associated more with the conservative-led coalition government than with his own party. Two years ago, he lost the party leadership contest to a leftist duo, who attacked him for his moderate centrism.
But Mr Scholz has managed to turn what had long been his party’s main responsibility – co-governing as junior partners of Mrs Merkel’s conservatives – into his main asset: in an election without a seat, he stylized as the seated – or what comes closest to Mrs Merkel.
“Germans are not a very change-friendly people, and Angela Merkel’s departure is actually enough change for them,” said Christiane Hoffmann, a prominent political observer and journalist. “They are likely to trust the candidate who promises the transition will be as easy as possible.”
With 25 percent in recent polls, Mr. Scholz overtook the Greens, who are now lagging behind at 17 percent, and the Conservatives at just over 20 percent. But political analysts point out that this would hardly be a convincing victory.
“No one has become chancellor with so little confidence since 1949,” said Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling station, referring to the founding year of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II.
“German voters are quite restless,” Güllner added. “After 16 years of Merkel’s chancellorship that brought a certain sense of stability, we are in a place we’ve never been before.”
During the campaign, Mr. Scholz spoke admiringly about the current chancellor. A tightly produced TV ad from the party has him walking in front of a projected image of Mrs Merkel.
He has been photographed making the chancellor’s signature diamond-shaped hand gesture – the “Merkel diamond” – and used the feminine form of the German word for chancellor on a campaign poster to convince Germans that he could continue Mrs Merkel’s work, even though he is. a man.
The symbolism isn’t subtle, but it works — so well, in fact, that the Chancellor felt compelled to push it back — most recently in what might be her final speech in the Bundestag.
Pollster Güllner said at least some of the recent wave of support for the Social Democrats has come from Merkel voters unhappy with her party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, a conservative state governor who has repeatedly tampered with the campaign trail. .
“There is no real Scholz enthusiasm in Germany,” said Ms Hoffmann. “His success is mainly due to the weakness of the other candidates.”
Unlike his rivals, Mr. Scholz did not set foot wrong in the campaign. He takes few risks and is so controlled that Germans have called him the “Scholz-o-mat” or “Scholz machine”.
Sticking to his message of stability has also made it harder for his opponents to attack him on past blunders, though some have tried. As mayor of Hamburg, he had private meetings with a banker who asked for a million-euro tax deferral, an episode that has become part of a state investigation, and it was under his tutelage as finance minister that fraudulent German fintech firm Wirecard imploded.
But that hardly came to the fore in the campaign. Instead, the popularity of Mr. Scholz continue to rise.
Mr. Scholz was a socialist in the 1970s, who gradually softened into a post-ideological centrist. He first championed workers as a labor lawyer, then he championed painful labor market reforms, and now alongside a conservative chancellor, his journey in many ways follows that of his party.
In its 158-year history, the Social Democrats have been a formidable political force, fighting for workers’ rights, fighting fascism and helping to shape Germany’s post-war welfare state. But after serving three terms as Ms Merkel’s junior partners, the party’s vote share had halved.
Gerhard Schröder, the last Social Democrat to become chancellor, won 39 percent of the vote in 2002. In 2005, when the Social Democrats entered into their first coalition with Ms Merkel, they still won 34 percent of the vote; in 2017 that had shrunk to 20 percent.
But even as his party sank to a post-war low, Mr Scholz became one of Germany’s most popular politicians.
It helped that as finance minister, he checked the government’s wallet during the pandemic. After years of religiously adhering to the cherished rule of Germany’s balanced budget, he pledged to release the “bazooka” to help businesses survive the pandemic, initially investing 353 billion euros, or about $417 billion, in recovery. – and relief funds.
“Scholz has zero charisma, but he exudes stability – and he handed out the money in the economic crisis,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance.
If current polls hold, the Social Democrats will finish first but need two other parties to form a governing coalition. One would almost certainly be the Greens. As for the others, Mr Scholz has pretty much ruled out the far-left left party, which would leave either the Conservatives or – more likely – the Liberal Democrats on the free market.
Mr. Scholz has offered some ideas about how he might govern differently, but the changes are relatively modest and could be softened even further by his coalition partners, analysts predict.
He has tried to win over his party’s key working-class voters by using “Respect” as one of his key campaign slogans. In his stump speech, he emphasizes: that people who earn as much as him would not get a tax break. Instead, he wants to lower taxes for middle and low incomes and modestly increase them for people with an income of more than 100,000 euros a year.
He promises to raise the minimum wage to 12 euros per hour (instead of the current 9.60 euros), build 400,000 homes per year (instead of the approximately 300,000 built in 2020) and implement a whole series of climate measures , but without coal. before 2038.
“We would not expect changes in taxes and spending to lead to a major additional fiscal stimulus,” Berenberg Bank chief economist Holger Schmieding wrote in a recent analysis of what a Scholz chancellorship would mean for financial markets. In a coalition with the Greens and the Liberals, he predicted, “the pragmatic Scholz himself would probably curb the leftist tendencies” of his own party base.
Only the conservatives, desperate under pressure, have argued the opposite.
Even Ms Merkel, who had said she wanted to stay out of the race, recently felt compelled to distance herself from Mr Scholz’s unabashed attempts to run as her clone.
There is “a huge difference for the future of Germany between him and me,” Ms Merkel said.