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Germany and the future chancellor: it’s complicated

Merkel Scholz
©EPA-EFE/HENNING SCHACHT / POOL  |   German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (R) attend a weekly cabinet meeting of the German federal government ahead of the national elections at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 22 September 2021.

Who will be Germany’s next chancellor? Olaf Scholz, the Social-Democrat candidate, seems to be the favorite choice. And it wouldn’t be far from the truth either, if the German election system weren’t so intricate. Now, after the September 26 election, all options are still on the table.

The Scholzomat that breathed new life into the Social-Democratic Party

Nicknamed “Scholzomat” for his pragmatic approach to politics, Olaf Scholz, aged 63, is what many people in Germany see as Angela Merkel’s true successor, even though he comes from a rival party. As a matter of fact, Scholz has been Germany’s vice-chancellor and finance minister since 2018, and has proved that in times of crisis (take, for instance, the devastating flash floods in Western Germany), he can keep a clear head and provide a pillar of stability. So, are there chances Germany will trade “Mutti” (as Angela Merkel is known) for “Vati”?

Olaf Scholz has been a member of the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) since 1975. He was born in Osnabruck, in the western parts of Lower Saxony, and grew up in Hamburg, where he also served as mayor. He entered Parliament and grew close to Angela Merkel in 2005, when the Conservatives struck a “Grand Alliance” with SPD and Merkel was appointed chancellor. Scholz served as Labor Minister in Merkel’s first cabinet.

Scholz, whom many see as having already secured the chancellor seat, was himself at the center of a great deal of scandals. The findings of the Wirecard inquiry, the largest public scandal that rocked Germany after the war, have led all the way to Scholz, who was finance minister in 2020 when news of the huge fraud broke out. In brief, the Wirecard company, a global provider of financial services in the area of electronic payments, filed for insolvency after the DAX-rated (a stock-market index of major blue chip German companies) company revealed that some 2 billion Euro, which was supposedly held in two banks in the Philippines, in fact existed only on paper. The scandal broke out in the summer of 2020, and Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz were called to the Bundestag to account for the whole mess. At the time, the finance minister was accused of oversight in what many saw as one of the biggest fraud scandals the country had ever experienced. But since new evidence never surfaced to incriminate Scholz, the dust seems to have settled, at least for the time being.

Six months ago, SPD appeared to be a weak opponent, but it was Scholz who boosted the party’s approval ratings.

End of the road for Germany’s heavyweights

Perhaps Olaf Scholz inspires confidence among voters. Perhaps he has what it takes to be a strong leader and a humble one when the situation requires. Perhaps he is a down-to-earth, pragmatic and principled kind of guy, but this is not enough to make him chancellor. And by that, I mean the due process a German politician must undertake in order to lead the Federal Republic.

The Social-Democratic Party, whose leader is NOT Olaf Scholz, indeed grabbed the largest number of votes. But for the party to lead, it must form a stable ruling coalition. For that reason, the negotiations that are already underway seem very difficult.

What is clear is that, following the September elections, both major parties in Germany, CDU/CSU and SPD, have lost their supremacy. Neither will be able to rule without the help of another two parties, no Grand Coalition will be possible without a third party chipping in. 

Sitting on a fragile lead in the election results, the Social-Democrats need support from the parties that grabbed the third-largest number of votes after CDU/CSU, namely the Greens and the Liberals. This would result in a so-called traffic light coalition – red for PSD, yellow for the Liberals and green for the Greens. The Conservatives seem to be all out of options – the only tangible solution is for themselves to strike a deal with the Liberals and the Greens, making up the so-called Jamaica coalition, dubbed after the colors of the national flag of the country in the Caribbean, black representing CDU/CSU.

In any of the abovementioned scenarios, the Greens and the Liberal-Democrats are those who will tip the balance. And it won’t be easy. The two parties are at odds on a great number of points. The Liberals advocate economic liberalism and fiscal austerity, whereas the Greens resemble the Social-Democrats in favoring certain fiscal and social policies. Moreover, they support a strong state that can manage environmental issues properly. There are, however, a few points where the two parties converge – for instance, both support innovation and digitization.

Apart from providing a solution for an upcoming coalition, the Greens and the Liberals are representatives of something else as well – a change of generations in German politics. This is mostly because many of the young people who voted for the first time in their lives on September 26 opted for the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens, in this order. This doesn’t mean traditional parties will disappear, but merely that this result compels them to accelerate the process of reinvigorating their ranks.

Nothing is sure until white smoke comes up the chimney

Once parties have decided on the structure of the future coalition, complex negotiations will follow, and until all parties are in full agreement, including who gets what portfolio, we won’t be seeing white smoke coming up the chimney.

But the moment that all factions reach consensus and set the terms and conditions for the new alliance, they will move on to the next phase, namely appointing the Chancellor, before the Bundestag can cast its vote. After the 2017 elections, Angela Merkel needed 5 months to be officially confirmed as chancellor. At the time, both the Greens and the Liberals withdrew from the negotiations table, paving the way for the Grand Coalition. Now, things seem to be much more complicated than that, since, like I’ve said before, CDU/CSU and SPD don’t hold the majority. For the sake of stability, president Frank Walter Steinmeier, a Social-Democratic politician, will most likely urge parties to sign an agreement. Should negotiations fail, the president may appoint a new possible leader, usually nominated by the party that grabbed the largest number of votes. The proposal is voted in Parliament in secret, and the candidate who grabs over half the total number of votes is designated winner. If this doesn’t solve the deadlock either, the president may then appoint a chancellor at the helm of a minority government or he may dissolve the Bundestag and call an early election. Right now, the biggest challenge in the current negotiation, is for all stakeholders to come up with long-term solutions to Germany’s most complex issues. A three-party coalition will need to establish a clear-cut governing agenda before the Cabinet can officially take office.

A post-doctrine government?

With or without Angela Merkel, Germany remains the engine of European economy. The new government in Berlin will have a big say in EU-wide fiscal policies as well as in the community bloc’s post-pandemic recovery program.

In the event of a three-party coalition in Germany, the Greens and the Liberal-Democrats are expected to influence and consolidate the decision-making process at EU level.

Germany’s future chancellor is likely to originate from the ranks of one of Germany’s two traditional parties. Although CDU/CSU sustained a bitter defeat, ranking third in some of the lands, after far-right parties (although overall AFD seems to have lost momentum), Angela Merkel’s successor at the helm of the conservative party is unwilling to give up his dream of becoming chancellor. And, with the risk of repeating myself, negotiations may produce a surprise.

Even though the head of the government in Berlin will represent a more mature generation, so to say, Germany’s policies will nevertheless be decided by a class of politicians less hampered by political doctrines, albeit on the center of the political spectrum.


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  • Who will be Germany’s next chancellor? Olaf Scholz, the Social-Democrat candidate, seems to be the favorite choice. And it wouldn’t be far from the truth either, if the German election system weren’t so intricate. Now, after the September 26 election, all options are still on the table.
  • The Social-Democratic Party, whose leader is NOT Olaf Scholz, indeed grabbed the largest number of votes. But for the party to lead, it must form a stable ruling coalition. For that reason, the negotiations that are already underway seem very difficult.
  • The Social-Democrats need support from the parties that grabbed the third-largest number of votes after CDU/CSU, namely the Greens and the Liberals. This would result in a so-called traffic light coalition – red for PSD, yellow for the Liberals and green for the Greens. The Conservatives seem to be all out of options – the only tangible solution is for themselves to strike a deal with the Liberals and the Greens, making up the so-called Jamaica coalition, dubbed after the colors of the national flag of the country in the Caribbean, black representing CDU/CSU.
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