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What you need to know about Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor

Olaf Scholz arrives for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Sept. 6. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

BERLIN — After months of negotiations, Olaf Scholz of Germany’s center-left Social Democrats will take the country into the post-Merkel era.

Scholz’s party leads a coalition along with two other parties that made gains in September elections: the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. That leaves out Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats after her 16 years as chancellor.

Here is what you need to know about Germany’s new leadership and the 63-year-old Scholz, who is set to take office on Wednesday:

German parties form new government led by center-left Olaf Scholz, marking end of Merkel era

Scholz worked with Merkel

Scholz’s party was the junior partner to the CDU in Merkel’s outgoing government, the third time the Social Democrats joined its traditional rival in a coalition. It’s a position the SPD took on reluctantly — but one that enabled Scholz to raise his profile nationally.

As finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel’s cabinet during the pandemic, Scholz built a reputation as having steady hands during a crisis. He oversaw the distribution of billions of euros in coronavirus relief and emergency aid to victims of the summer’s deadly flooding in western Germany.

He has been called the “Scholzomat” for his dry, verging on boring, political style. But that may have served him well with voters still attached to Merkel, who was hardly known for impassioned speeches. Despite being from a different party, he positioned himself during the election campaign as her natural successor.

Germany’s Social Democrats narrowly defeat Angela Merkel’s party, according to preliminary results

“Obviously Merkel has left a huge impact on the political culture of Germany through her governing style,” said Frank Stauss, a political communications consultant who has worked with the SPD in the past. But Scholz is not a “Merkel clone,” Stauss added.

Preliminary numbers showed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats came in second to the center-left Social Democrats on Sept. 26. (Video: Reuters)

Touched by scandals

Scholz, a lifelong Social Democrat, was born in Osnabrück in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony and raised in the wealthy city-state of Hamburg on Germany’s northern coast, where he also served as mayor. Alternating between state and national politics, he has served in the parliament, or Bundestag, and as minister of labor and social affairs in Merkel’s first cabinet.

His political career has been buffeted by scandals. While mayor of Hamburg, he faced criticism for his handling of the Group of 20 summit in 2017, as the event descended into widespread violence between protesters and police.

A parliamentary inquiry by opposition lawmakers earlier this year called him out for a lack of oversight after the financial technology company Wirecard unraveled on his watch in Germany’s biggest postwar fraud scandal. He has rebuffed accusations that he bears any political responsibility.

Scholz has also been questioned in an inquiry into whether he acted to influence tax authorities on behalf of a Hamburg bank at the center of the “cum-ex” fraud scandal, which deprived the German state of billions of euros in revenue. He has denied any wrongdoing, and no concrete evidence has emerged against him.

Analysis: Germany enters a period of post-Merkel uncertainty

And in September, Scholz was forced to return to Berlin from the campaign trail to answer questions in the parliamentary finance committee. The inquiry was called after the public prosecutor ordered searches of the Finance Ministry as part of an investigation into allegations of obstruction of justice at its anti-money laundering unit.

But he has emerged relatively unscathed.

Issues ahead

The Social Democrats’ campaign issues included raising the minimum wage and taxes on the rich.

A timetable to move away from coal remains a top question. The Green Party wants to phase out coal by 2030, faster than the existing target date of 2038. The traditional support base of the Social Democrats included many of Germany’s miners and blue-collar workers before much of that electorate fell away to other parties.