Germany’s SPD picks Merkel-like figure to run for top job in 2021

Germany’s Social Democrats have fired the starting gun in the race to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor by announcing the pragmatist finance minister, Olaf Scholz, as their candidate for the job.

One of the two pillars of 20th-century democracy in Germany, the Social Democratic party (SPD) has seen its support wither away since joining Merkel’s government as a junior coalition partner in 2013. It lies third in the polls behind the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Greens, on about 14% of the vote.

Yet next year’s federal elections will be the first since the second world war in which an incumbent chancellor will not be in the running for the top seat, making the centre-left party hopeful that all could be to play for if it offers up the right candidate.

Scholz, a former mayor of Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, surprisingly lost last year’s contest to lead his party but has now secured the support of the SPD’s more leftwing leadership duo, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, to lead the party into next autumn’s election.

A taciturn number-cruncher previously nicknamed Scholzomat for his monotone delivery, the 62-year-old has enjoyed high approval ratings since taking over the finance ministry in 2018, and his popularity has risen further during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The former leader of Juso, the SPD’s youth wing, is a more divisive figure among his own party faithful, many of whom accuse him of lacking the courage to go after banks implicated in the “cum-ex” tax fraud scheme and having failed to detect and prevent the Wirecard accounting scandal.

Supporters say Scholz has played a vital role in shaping the EU’s €750bn (£675bn) Covid-19 recovery plan, which involved a historic break with Germany’s commitment to balanced budgets. They say wooden delivery in interviews and hesitant decision-making have never significantly harmed Merkel’s appeal in her 15 years in the chancellory.

Hailing Scholz as “decisive and experienced”, and “brave even in crisis”, a press release announcing his candidacy left little doubt that the SPD would present its contender as guaranteeing a better chance of continuity with the stable Merkel era than any politician from her own party.

Because of the pandemic, the CDU has postponed until December the party congress that will decide the party’s future leadership, and therefore the likely candidate leading the party into next year’s elections.

The Green party, currently second in polls on about 19% of the vote, is likely to field an official chancellor candidate for the first time in its history.