Olaf Scholz bets on second chances to seal German election comeback

Social Democrat has vaulted from third in the polls to lead the race to succeed Angela Merkel

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As the most popular candidate in the running to be German chancellor, Olaf Scholz sounds pleased with his front-runner status but is taking nothing for granted.

“I’m very touched that many people can imagine me as chancellor,” he told a crowd of supporters on Tuesday.

It is only in the final weeks of the campaign that his personal approval ratings have translated into a poll lead for his Social Democratic Party (SPD), which trailed in third place as recently as July.

His closing message at a rally in Lueneburg, a historic market town near Hamburg, was that voters who like his level-headed pragmatism must go and vote for the SPD - an acknowledgement that this is not a given.

“Anyone who wants me to be chancellor has to give their second vote to the SPD,” he said. Germans have two votes, with the first electing a local MP and the second deciding the shape of the new parliament.

Sometimes ridiculed for his robotic speeches, Mr Scholz has made a virtue of his reputation for predictability as his two main rivals have been plagued by gaffes. The SPD enters the campaign's final days with a small but persistent poll lead.

On the stump in Lueneburg, he was heckled by Fridays for Future protesters who demanded that he meet a group of hunger strikers in Berlin.

But Mr Scholz did what he does best: keep calm, carry on politely and wait for his opponents to run out of steam. The protesters eventually stood down.

Even a friendlier disturbance — “Olaf, I love you,” cried one voter — prompted no more than a chuckle from Mr Scholz.

He ploughed on with his favourite social policy themes: students should get more money, the pension age should not be raised, workers should earn at least €12 ($14) an hour.

“I don’t want so many children to grow up in poverty in a rich country like Germany,” he said. “We have to put a stop to this situation.”

At what was his fourth event of the day, some of his lines were borrowed from the TV debate outings in which polls named him as the winner.

He likes to describe the scale of the climate challenge by saying that 250 years of a fossil fuel-powered economy must be followed by a 25-year race to net zero.

“Regardless of how we talk about the problem, we have to solve it,” he said, gesturing at the Fridays for Future hecklers.

His half-hour speech was not one to put fire in the belly of voters, but Mr Scholz’s reputation for a steady hand is the centrepiece of the SPD campaign.

He often mentions his strong approval ratings in the race for the chancellorship. “I'm very touched because it's a difficult job,” he said. “When so many people trust you to do it, it’s something special.”

Merkel imitation

Mr Scholz, 60, welcomes comparisons to Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he has served as a coalition Finance Minister since 2018. She rejects the parallel.

Like Mrs Merkel, Mr Scholz is a moderate in his party with roots in Hamburg, where he spent seven years as mayor from 2011 to 2018.

In addition to mimicking Mrs Merkel, he compares himself to Helmut Schmidt, another Social Democrat who started out in Hamburg and went on to win the chancellorship in the 1970s.

As mayor, Mr Scholz loosened the purse strings to bail out a popular but over-budget concert hall that opened in 2017.

After moving closer to Berlin to take on the finance job, he suffered a wounding defeat in an SPD leadership race two years ago.

He recovered to win the SPD nomination for the chancellorship last year, but it seemed a thankless task. The party appeared in decline and there was even a suggestion of not putting forward a candidate at all.

As recently as July, polls put the SPD in third behind the Christian Democrats and Greens, but Mr Scholz’s late bounce has revitalised the party.

“The world looks completely different than it did three months ago,” said Stephan Weil, the SPD regional premier of Lower Saxony, as he warmed up Tuesday's crowd.

A lawyer by training, Mr Scholz touted his efforts to secure a global tax deal to prevent rich companies from gaming the system. He was praised by the International Monetary Fund for his handling of public finances during the pandemic.

But his finance role has also exposed him to criticism over a money laundering scandal that his department is accused of failing to handle effectively.

Armin Laschet, the nominee of Mrs Merkel’s party, has seized on a raid at Mr Scholz’s ministry to attack his rival and highlighted separate financial scandals on his watch.

But Mr Laschet’s attacks have done little to budge the polls, which show the SPD on course for a vote share of about 25 per cent.

A first-place finish would give Mr Scholz the chance to form a government with the Greens, although the two parties would probably need a third partner.

With typical reserve, Mr Scholz has evaded attempts to pin him down on the subject of post-election talks. Asked about it in Lueneburg, he simply said: “I would like a coalition with the citizens”.

Updated: September 22, 2021, 1:23 PM