BERLIN — For the first time in nearly 16 years, Angela Merkel is not the chancellor of Germany. Her Social Democrat successor, Olaf Scholz, was sworn in around noon on Wednesday local time, after the Bundestag, the German parliament, voted him into office.
It has been a long road getting here. Merkel, a conservative Christian Democrat, has been treated to send-offs, both formal and informal, at home and abroad. Despite four terms in office — a reign that predates the iPhone — Merkel is leaving less than two weeks shy of the record for longest chancellorship. That’s held by Helmut Kohl, Merkel’s party mentor who oversaw German reunification in 1990.
She is the first German chancellor to retire, rather than lose, and one of the few heads of government to plan her exit from political life. On Wednesday, from her seat in the parliament’s visitor gallery, Merkel received a lengthy standing ovation from lawmakers and other officials before voting began.
Otherwise, she kept a characteristically low profile on her final day in office and was set to hand the chancellery over to Scholz in the afternoon.
“Everything happening the way it should in a democracy: smoothly, respectfully and amicably,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman since 2010, said in a video statement as he prepared to vacate his office, too.
Scholz’s path to becoming Europe’s most powerful leader has been fraught. He enjoyed the stature of vice chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s final, and most turbulent, government, but his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) struggled to distinguish itself after years supporting Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Facing historically low poll numbers, Scholz stood an outside chance for much of the election campaign. But as his rivals fumbled, his prospects — and those of his party — improved.
“We got going, back when almost no one believed in us. Today I can elect Olaf Scholz as the next chancellor. What an honor. What a time. What a race,” SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil tweeted ahead of the vote.
Since the election in September, party leaders have worked hard to present a united front with their coalition partners — the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats — as they hammered out an agreement for their four-year term of office. The accord marked the first three-way coalition in decades at the federal level and the first time Germany has had this combination try to run the country.
While the SPD and Greens are natural allies on the center-left of the political spectrum, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) has been more the conservatives’ historical partner. The FDP’s views on limited state interference, low taxes and regulation, and a tight hold on the public purse clash with the other side’s more expansive view of government.
“The FDP’s influence is clearly visible, especially in key policy areas,” Dietmar Bartsch, co-leader of the socialist Left party in parliament, told German broadcaster Phoenix. “In fiscal policy, the Greens and the SPD had very different positions before the agreement. That’s all FDP.”
The new coalition has said it has found a way to make investments in infrastructure, technology and climate change initiatives while sticking to strict debt-limit rules and holding off on new taxes. That comes on top of unprecedented spending during the coronavirus pandemic, as the federal government stepped in to support workers, companies and state and local governments.
There may be more spending to come, with the country struggling to break a fourth wave of infections and raise its vaccination rate.
Germany faces a long-term nursing shortage, an aging population and a housing crisis, which has exacerbated homelessness and put more pressure on the middle class. Climate advocates have acknowledged the new government’s tougher measures, such as “ideally” phasing out coal by 2030 and nearly doubling renewable energy by then, but also say they are insufficient to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Scholz may also have an immediate geopolitical crisis on his hands. With Russia again massing troops on Ukraine’s border, Germany faces renewed calls from allies to kill the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. The pipeline is complete, but it faces German regulatory hurdles before Russian gas can start flowing.
After nearly 16 years of a conservative leadership defined by crisis management, Scholz faces high expectations to fulfill his government’s headline promise of “dare more progress.”