Olaf Scholz, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, won the night narrowly. But now begins the hard part – building a sustainable Governing Coalition.
Berlin – For a moment it felt like he was already chancellor. As Olaf Scholz stood on stage surrounded by enthusiastic followers chanting his name and celebrating him as if he was the next leader of Germany, the clear winner of the night.
Mr Scholz had just done the unthinkable – leading his long-dead centre-left Social Democrats to victory, though in Sunday’s elections, the most volatile in a generation.
But if winning wasn’t hard enough, the hardest part is yet to come.
Mr Scholz, a friendly but disciplined politician, most recently served as chancellor and finance minister in the outgoing government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although he leads a party opposing his conservative Christian Democratic Union, he came out on top by convincing voters that he was not so much an agent of change as stability and continuity. In the race without an incumbent he ran as one.
It is a balancing act that may be difficult to maintain for a socialist of a time that today lies firmly at the center of a rapidly changing political landscape.
It is not that the Germans have suddenly turned left. In fact, three out of four Germans did not vote for his party at all, and Mr Scholz campaigned to raise the minimum wage, strengthen German industry and fight climate change – all mainstream positions.
Despite garnering the most votes, Mr Scholz is yet to be assured of becoming chancellor. And if he does so, he risks becoming embroiled in a tussle between several coalition partners, not to speak of rebel factions within his own party.
On Monday, as his conservative rival insisted he would work to form a government, momentum seemed to swing behind Mr Scholz as it became increasingly clear that coalition talks involving the two other parties were at play. For he had the strongest hand. “The voters have spoken,” he confidently told reporters.
Still, it will not be an easy task for them.
Mr. Scholz has been a well-known face in German politics for more than two decades and has served in several governments. But it is still difficult to know what kind of chancellor he will be.
A fiery young socialist in the 1970s, he gradually became a post-ideological centrist. Today he is on the right side of significant parts of his party – not unlike President Biden in the United States, to whom he is sometimes compared. He had lost his party’s leadership contest to two leftists two years ago.
His party’s surprising resurgence in the election depended heavily on his own personal popularity. But many warn that Mr Scholz’s appeal does not address the deep problems and divisions that have plagued the Social Democrats, better known by their German acronym SPD.
“None of the claims of stalemate or political irrelevance imposed on the SPD over the years have gone away,” the suddeutsche Zeitung wrote on Monday.
Or as Thomas Klein-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund put it: “The Social Democrats are not offering a new package, they are offering a centrist that makes you forget the party behind it.”
Like many of its sister parties elsewhere in Europe, Germany’s Social Democrats have been in crisis for years, losing traditional working class voters to the left and right and young urban voters to the extremes of the Greens.
Now Mr. Scholz must not only satisfy his left-wing base, but he must also deal with an entirely new political landscape.
Instead of two major parties competing to go into coalition with one ally, four medium-sized parties are now jockeying for a place in the government. For the first time since the 1950s, the next chancellor would have to bring at least three different parties behind a governing deal – thus Mr Scholz’s conservative runner-up, Armin Laschet, could theoretically still beat him in the top job. Huh.
A new era of politics has officially begun in Germany – and it looks messy. The political landscape of Germany, a place of long sleepy stagnation where many chancellors stayed for more than a decade, broke up into several parties, which no longer differ so much in size.
“There is a structural shift going on that I don’t think we understand yet,” Mr Klein-Brockhoff said. “We are facing a change in the party system that we did not see a few weeks ago. A multidimensional chess game has opened up.”
Mr. Scholz is running through a terribly complicated process where the power to decide who will become the next leader has almost as much as two smaller parties that will be part of any future administration: the Progressive Greens, who have a 14.8 percent share. was the best result in their history; and pro-business free Democrats, with 11.5 percent. Together these two kingmakers are now stronger than either of the two main parties.
In another first, the Free Democrats indicated they would hold talks with the Greens before turning to the larger parties.
Free Democrats have never been shy about their preference to govern alongside conservatives. The Greens fit more naturally with the Social Democrats, but can see advantages in negotiating with a weaker candidate. At the state level he has successfully co-ruled with the Christian Democrats over the years.
Meanwhile, Mr Lachette, whose unpopularity and campaign blunders caused his party to drop nine percentage points to its lowest election result ever, said he would not give up on “moral” grounds, calling his decision to accept defeat. Ignoring the growing numbers from its own camp.
“No one should behave as if they alone can form the government,” Mr Lachette told reporters on Monday. “If you can make a majority, you can become chancellor.”
This would not be the first time that a loser of the popular vote has become a chancellor. In 1969, 1976 and 1980, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, both centre-left chancellors, formed coalition governments after losing the popular vote. But both got 40 percent of the vote and did not face the complicated multi-party talks going on in Germany.
Many conservatives urged Mr Lachette to accede to Monday.
“It was a defeat,” said Hesse state governor Volker Bouffier, adding that others were now called to form the government.
Another Conservative MP, Alain Demuth, warned Mr Lachette that his party was hurting further by his refusal to accept. “You lost,” Ms Demuth tweeted. “Please recognize this. Avoid hurting CDU further and resign.”
State leaders of the Conservative youth wing were equally adamant. Marcus Mundlin said, “We need a true renewal and this can only be successful if Mr Lachette” bears the consequences of this loss in confidence and steps down.
An opinion poll released after the election showed that more than half of Germans preferred a coalition led by Mr Scholz, while a third said they wanted Mr Lachette in power. When asked who they preferred as chancellor, 62 per cent chose Mr Scholz, compared to 16 per cent for Mr Laskett.
Some argued that the government led by Scholz would provide his party with an opportunity to revive its declining fortunes.
“This is an important moment for German social democracy which was on the verge of eternal decline,” said Mr. Klein-Brockhoff. “Mr. Scholz will have a very powerful position because he alone is the reason for his party’s victory.”