BERLIN — After more than a decade and a half of Angela Merkel's leadership, Germans may still have an appetite for her workaday political style. At least that's what Olaf Scholz, from a longtime rival party, is hoping.
And the polls have swung in his favor heading toward Sept. 26 elections.
"He's rational, stable, almost boring," said Nils Diederich, a German political scientist and former SPD parliament member. "This makes him very similar to Mrs. Merkel."
And that’s all the more important in a campaign that has focused on personality rather than policy, he added.
The race to succeed Merkel has been unusually tight. It is the first time in Germany’s postwar history that an incumbent is not running for reelection, aside from the very first vote.
No single party is expected to win anywhere near an outright majority, meaning potentially long and difficult negotiations ahead to craft a coalition. After the 2017 elections, it’s how 63-year-old Scholz ended up in the government in a reluctant alliance with Merkel’s center-right party.
Right now, Scholz has the pole position over the other candidates: Armin Laschet, 60, a political veteran picked as Merkel’s successor to lead the Christian Democratic Union, and a 40-year-old rising star for the Greens, Annalena Baerbock.
The latest polls give his party an average of around 26 percent of the vote, with Merkel's CDU slumping to around the 20 percent mark. The Greens are polling at 16 percent.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for Scholz and his party, which was languishing in a distant third place in opinion polls earlier this year.
Analysts put Scholz’s success down partially to luck, or more specifically, the failures and missteps of his rivals, including a particularly disastrous campaign for Laschet, including an uneven response to devastating floods in July in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
That has given room for Scholz to frame himself more as Merkel’s successor, said Thorsten Faas, a professor at the Free University of Berlin who specializes in electoral campaigns.
“Scholz is clearly trying to create an image of being the natural, but Social Democratic, successor of Angela Merkel,” he said.
“He can be chancellor,” read some of Scholz’s campaign posters, using the feminine form of chancellor in German — kanzlerin — sending the message that he is channeling his inner Merkel.
The attempt to cast himself in Merkel’s shadow has brought some derision from her bloc.
Scholz is “legacy hunting,” according to Markus Söder, the leader of the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel’s CDU.
“Making the diamond is not enough,” he told the Bild newspaper in a recent interview, referring to Scholz’s appearance on the front cover of Süddeutsche Magazine last month displaying Merkel’s signature hand gesture — her thumbs and index fingers pressed together in the shape of a diamond.
With only eight chancellors since 1949, the German electorate isn’t known for embracing too much in the way of change.
Britain has had 15 prime ministers over the same period; Italy, 41. With no limit on terms, Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, led the country for 14 years. Merkel’s mentor, Helmut Kohl, who oversaw Germany’s reunification, served for 16 years.
Britain’s longest-serving postwar leader, Tony Blair, was in office for a relatively mere 10 years.
“After 15 years, German voters have learned from Merkel what a chancellor is,” said Diederich, the political researcher. “Maybe [Scholz is] the person who best fits the image for chancellor for most voters.”
At a Berlin beer garden on the River Spree, Scholz cut a confident figure earlier this month as he discussed such diverse topics as pensions, post-pandemic economics, rents, education and Afghanistan.
Scholz was able to raise his national profile as Merkel’s deputy and finance minister, overseeing billions in pandemic relief and aid to victims of the summer’s deadly flooding in western Germany.
He defended a temporary suspension of Germany’s constitutional “debt brake,” which has allowed the country to borrow more money for emergency spending.
He has so far emerged relatively unscathed from a number of scandals. Just this month, German prosecutors raided the offices of his Finance Ministry as they investigate whether one of its units ignored warnings over suspected money laundering.
He has been called to answer questions in the parliament, or Bundestag, before the election. He has said that prosecutors could have put questions to the ministry in writing, hinting at a political motive for the raid.
The collapse of fintech company Wirecard, Germany’s biggest postwar fraud scandal, also happened on his watch. Scholz has also battled accusations that he intervened on behalf of a bank at the heart of the Europe-wide tax fraud scandal.
Roller coaster race
It’s been a volatile race so far.
Earlier this year, polls showed the Greens as having a chance at winning. But their candidate Baerbock became embroiled with questions over the embellishment of her résumé, late-declared earnings and accusations of plagiarism.
Meanwhile, Merkel’s CDU picked Laschet as its party leader and later its candidate despite, in both instances, his being the most unpopular option with the public at large.
The premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westfalia, Laschet faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic, including from Merkel herself as he pushed back against closures.
If current polls are anything to go by, he could be leading the Christian Democrats to one of their worst results in history.
“What is pretty clear is Laschet is really bringing down the party,” said Peter Matuschek, political analyst at the polling institute Forsa. “Laschet, in theory, could have enjoyed his position as incumbent, but he didn’t seize this opportunity. It’s quite the opposite.”
Devastating flooding in his state early this summer gave Laschet a powerful setting to showcase his leadership. But he was caught on camera laughing during a memorial to the victims.
Scholz appears to be the “last man standing,” Matuschek said.
The SPD is Germany’s oldest party, tracing its Marxist roots back to the 1860s. Like other center-left parties in Europe, it has seen its fortunes fade.
Scholz has also called for raising the minimum wage to 12 euros (about $14.10), from 9.50 euros (about $11.20), and raising taxes on high earners. The party platform also wants more support, such tax breaks, for low- and middle-wage earners, as well as the unemployed, parents and caregivers.
But it is an election where people care more about personalities than politics, said Matuschek.
“I would say many of the proposals in the election manifesto of the Social Democrats are not really popular, but nobody is reading party manifestos,” he said.
Merkel, who was more progressive than the more traditional right-wing elements of her party, was able to attract a wider range of voters. But now the Christian Democrats are even losing voters to the Social Democrats, Matuschek said.
Paul Bahlmann, a 31-year-old candidate for a Berlin councilor seat with the SPD, is enjoying the ride. He checks the polls regularly.
“It’s too good to be true right now,” he said.