2021-09-28 00:24:15 Winner but Not Chancellor — Yet. The Race to Replace Merkel

Winner but Not Chancellor — Yet. The Race to Replace Merkel

BERLIN — For a brief moment, he appeared to be chancellor. Olaf Scholz was the clear winner of the night as he stood on the stage surrounded by ecstatic supporters chanting his name and celebrating him as if he were the next leader of Germany.

Mr. Scholz had just done the unthinkable: he had carried his long-dormant center-left Social Democrats to victory, however narrow, in the most volatile elections in a generation on Sunday.

But, if winning wasn’t difficult enough, the most difficult part may be yet to come.

Mr. Scholz, an affable but disciplined politician, most recently served as vice chancellor and finance minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s outgoing government. Despite the fact that he leads the party that opposes her conservative Christian Democratic Union, he came out on top by convincing voters that he was not so much a change agent as one of stability and continuity. In a race where there was no incumbent, he ran as one.

It is a difficult balancing act for a former socialist who is now firmly rooted in the center of a rapidly changing political landscape.

It’s not as if Germans have suddenly shifted to the left. In fact, three out of every four Germans did not vote for his party at all, despite the fact that Mr. Scholz campaigned on raising the minimum wage, strengthening German industry, and combating climate change, all of which are mainstream positions.

Despite receiving the most votes, Mr. Scholz’s appointment as chancellor is not guaranteed. And if he does, he risks becoming entangled in wrangling between multiple coalition partners, not to mention rebellious factions within his own party.

On Monday, as his conservative rival insisted on working to form a government, the momentum appeared to shift in Mr. Scholz’s favor as it became clear he had the strongest hand to play in coalition talks involving two other parties. “The voters have spoken,” he assured reporters.

Still, it will not be an easy task.

Mr. Scholz has been a fixture in German politics for over two decades, serving in a number of governments. Even now, it’s unclear what kind of chancellor he would be.

In the 1970s, he was a fiery young socialist who gradually mellowed into a post-ideological centrist. Today, he is to the right of significant parts of his party, similar to US Vice President Joe Biden, to whom he is sometimes compared. He was defeated in his party’s leadership election two years ago by two leftists.

His party’s unexpected resurgence in the election was heavily reliant on his personal popularity. Many, however, warn that Mr. Scholz’ appeal does not address the deeper issues and divisions that have plagued the Social Democrats, abbreviated S.P.D. in Germany.

“None of the claims of staleness or political irrelevance leveled at the SPD in recent years have gone away,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday.

Or, as the German Marshall Fund’s Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff put it, “the Social Democrats aren’t offering a new package; they’re offering a centrist who makes you forget the party behind it.”

Germany’s Social Democrats, like many of its sister parties across Europe, have been in crisis for years, losing traditional working-class voters to the extremes on the left and right and young urban voters to the Greens.

Mr. Scholz will now have to deal with a completely new political landscape in addition to satisfying his own leftist party base.

Instead of two dominant parties vying for a coalition with one partner, four midsize parties are now vying for a place in government. For the first time since the 1950s, the next chancellor will have to secure the support of at least three different parties in order to form a governing coalition — which is how Mr. Scholz’s conservative runner-up, Armin Laschet, could theoretically still beat him to the top job.

In Germany, a new era of politics has officially begun — and it appears to be chaotic. Germany’s political landscape, which was once a place of sleepy stability with several chancellors staying on for more than a decade, has fractured into multiple parties that no longer differ in size all that much.

“There is a structural shift going on that I don’t think we have fully grasped,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said. “We are facing a change in the party system that we did not see coming just a few weeks ago. A three-dimensional chess game has begun.”

Mr. Scholz is entering a fiendishly complicated process in which the power to decide who will be the next leader lies almost entirely with the two smaller parties that will be part of any future administration: the progressive Greens, who received the highest vote share in their history (14.8 percent), and the pro-business Free Democrats, who received 11.5 percent. These two kingmakers are now more powerful than either of the two major parties.

In another first, the Free Democrats indicated that they would first consult with the Greens before approaching the larger parties.

The Free Democrats have never been shy about expressing their desire to govern alongside the conservatives. The Greens are a much better fit with the Social Democrats, but they may see an advantage in negotiating with a weaker candidate. For years, they have successfully co-governed with the Christian Democrats at the state level.

Meanwhile, Mr. Laschet, whose unpopularity and campaign gaffes sent his party crashing nine percentage points to its lowest election result ever, said he would not concede on “moral” grounds, despite a growing chorus of calls from within his own party to accept defeat.

“No one should act as if they can build a government on their own,” Mr. Laschet told reporters on Monday. “If you can build a majority, you become chancellor.”

It would not be the first time that a popular vote loser became chancellor. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, both center-left chancellors, formed coalition governments after losing popular votes in 1969, 1976, and 1980. However, both received more than 40% of the vote and were not subjected to the complex multiparty negotiations that are now taking place in Germany.

On Monday, several conservatives urged Mr. Laschet to accept defeat.

“It was a defeat,” said Volker Bouffier, governor of Hesse, adding that others would now be called upon to form a government.

Another conservative lawmaker, Ellen Demuth, warned Mr. Laschet that his refusal to concede was hurting his party even more. Ms. Demuth tweeted, “You have lost.” “Please acknowledge that. Resign to avoid further harming the C.D.U.”

The conservative youth wing’s state leader was equally adamant. “We need a true renewal,” Marcus Mündlein said, adding that this could only happen if Mr. Laschet “bears the consequences of this loss in trust and steps down.”

According to an opinion poll conducted after the election, more than half of Germans preferred a coalition led by Mr. Scholz, while one-third preferred Mr. Laschet. When asked who they preferred as chancellor, 62 percent preferred Mr. Scholz, while 16 percent preferred Mr. Laschet.

Some argued that a Scholz-led government would give his party a chance to resurrect its flagging fortunes.

“This is a watershed moment for German social democracy, which was on the verge of extinction,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said. “Mr. Scholz will be in a position of great power because he is the sole reason his party won.”

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Winner but Not Chancellor — Yet. The Race to Replace Merkel