On the evening of September 26, the crowd at the Berlin headquarters of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) broke out into cheers when the center-left party narrowly won the German election.
The party’s victory, which once seemed unlikely, marks a turning point in German politics after 16 years under the leadership of outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right party the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
It is a grand turnaround for the SDP, which performed poorly in the previous election in 2017, winning only 20 percent of a fragmented German electorate. The party’s poor results appeared to persist through this summer, when the SPD was polling at around 15 percent—just a month and a half before the election, The Economist predicted that the SPD had a one percent chance of taking first place. But on election night, SPD won 25.7 percent of the vote, edging out the CDU’s 24 percent and winning the plurality vote.
The striking comeback was driven by the party’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz. In an election that focused more on candidates’ personalities than their centrist policies, Scholz sold himself as a continuation of Merkel’s sober-minded and practical style of leadership. Although he comes from a different party, Scholz previously served as Vice Chancellor of Germany and Minister of Finance in Merkel’s cabinet, when the SPD was a junior partner in an uncomfortable “Grand Coalition” between the SPD and CDU.
As Minister of Finance, Scholz earned a reputation for getting things done. In particular, he championed his leading role in distributing billions of euros in COVID-19 relief funds throughout the campaign. His dry, competent political style (which earned him the nickname “Scholz-o-maton”) contrasted sharply with the mishap-ridden rival campaigns of Armin Laschet and Anna Baerbock. Baerbock, the chancellor-candidate for the Green Party, has faced accusations of plagiarizing parts of her book and embellishing her CV, while Laschet, the CDU’s candidate, was caught on camera laughing during a visit to towns devastated by catastrophic flooding.
Moreover, in an election largely free of new ideas, Scholz has some simple, appealing ones: raising the minimum wage, increasing affordable housing, transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy and strengthening the country’s green-energy export industry.
All of this contributed to Scholz’s popularity, riding off the back of Merkel’s decade and a half in office. Scholz has performed particularly well in surveys that asked Germans who they would choose if they could directly elect a chancellor. It is this widespread public approval that fueled his party’s success in the latest election.
Still, Scholz does not yet have the chancellorship. Whether he claims the prize at the helm of Germany—and by extension Europe—depends on the outcome of ongoing coalition talks. Scholz has signalled that he intends to form a coalition with the progressive Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party. While the CDU could still form a coalition with the same parties, Scholz is clearly best placed to succeed Merkel—the CDU, it seems, will follow out the door behind her.
Whatever the case, Scholz and the SPD’s rise represents a major realignment of German politics. Since World War II, it marks only the fourth time the SPD has won a national election and, if the party successfully forms a coalition, it will be the first time a three-way coalition has governed post-war Germany.
By: Leo Peters