Olaf Scholz: Safe pair of hands who wants Merkel's job

Olaf Scholz: Safe pair of hands who wants Merkel's job

Scholz is now within grasping reach of the chancellery just a month before the election

Olaf Scholz. Credit: Reuters Photo

Nicknamed "Scholzomat" for his robotic speeches, Olaf Scholz, the centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) candidate to succeed Angela Merkel, has hardly stood out for his charisma in the run-up to September's election.

But unlike his two main rivals, Armin Laschet of Merkel's CDU-CSU alliance and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, the 63-year-old has also managed not to make embarrassing mistakes on the campaign trail.

As a result, Scholz is now within grasping reach of the chancellery just a month before the election.

At the start of the year, the SPD was trailing so badly in the polls that many had written off the chance that the party -- currently the junior partner in a coalition with Merkel's conservatives -- would be part of the next government.

But the latest surveys have the SPD neck-and-neck with the conservatives, and when it comes to which personality Germans would like to see as their next chancellor, Scholz is streets ahead.

One poll on Tuesday even had the SPD ahead of the conservative bloc for the first time since 2006.

Even if the SPD does not come first in the September 26 vote, Scholz could still end up being chancellor if he is able to form a coalition with other parties.

As finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel, Scholz is one of Germany's most influential politicians and the only one of the three candidates who has held a ministerial office.

During his time in the post, the man often described as meticulous, confident and fiercely ambitious has cemented his reputation for being fiscally conservative.

Despite agreeing to suspend Germany's cherished "debt brake" to stave off the crippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic, he has insisted on a return to the policy by 2023.

"All this is expensive, but doing nothing would have been even more expensive," he insisted at the time.

Scholz's cautious approach has at times seen him marginalised within his own workers' party, overlooked in a leadership vote in 2019 in favour of two relatively unknown left-wingers.

But he has got behind the SPD's flagship policies in the election campaign, opposing a reduction in wealth tax promised by the conservatives and backing an increase in the minimum wage.

Despite his tight grip on Germany's finances, he has been known to loosen the purse strings, notably as mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, when he bailed out the wildly over-budget Elbphilharmonie concert hall.

For Scholz, whose motto is "I can only distribute what I have", the spending was justified by the city-state's healthy finances.

Born in the northern city of Osnabrueck, Scholz joined the SPD as a teenager.

He flirted with its more leftwing ideals but soon came to prefer a more centrist course.

After training as a lawyer specialised in labour issues, Scholz was elected to the national parliament in 1998. He married fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst that same year.

It was during his 2002-2004 stint as the SPD's general secretary that he earned the "robot" moniker for his dry yet tireless defence of the unpopular labour reforms of his idol, then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

As labour minister in Merkel's first coalition government from 2007 to 2009, Scholz helped avert mass lay-offs during the financial crisis by convincing firms to cut workers' hours with the state topping up their salaries -- a policy repeated during the pandemic.

The SPD's deputy leader for almost a decade, he also backs deeper eurozone integration and greater German contributions to the EU budget post-Brexit.

Scholz has admitted he is "not someone who is particularly emotional in politics".

But his lack of charisma has never bothered Merkel, with the pair enjoying a close relationship.

The chancellor stood by Scholz in 2017 when he faced calls to resign after violent protests at the G20 summit in Hamburg, and also during the recent Wirecard fraud scandal.

Wirecard, once a rising star on the German fintech scene, filed for bankruptcy last year in what has been described as Germany's biggest post-war accounting scandal.

As head of the finance ministry, which oversees banking regulator Bafin, Scholz had come under fire for missing signs that something was amiss at the company.

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