Hamburg Elections

A Merkel Challenger in the Making

Scholz-DPA
A possible contender to Chancellor Angela Merkel?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Social Democrats need leaders like Mr. Scholz who deliver results.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Mr. Scholz, a Social Democrat, has been the mayor of Hamburg since 2011.
    • His achievements include a budget surplus, a balanced budget, the construction of new housing and free daycare.
    • Until now, he has governed the city with a large majority.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Olaf Scholz, on the campaign trail, has just spent half an hour talking about his achievements. His four-year term as mayor of the city-state Hamburg is coming to end and he wants voters to know why they need to re-elect him on Sunday.

There are several reasons, he is quick to point out: an estimated budget surplus of €400 million, or $453 million; a balanced budget; 6,000 new residential units being approved each year – a third of them publicly subsidized; free daycare slots and free university tuition; and €3 billion earmarked for school and university construction.

Mr. Scholz, 56, has also been a force in efforts to reform Germany’s inter-state fiscal adjustment system but is reluctant to discuss details or proposals. He hopes the negotiating parties in the federal and state governments will reach an agreement on the basic rules of a new inter-state fiscal adjustment by summer.

Nor does the mayor shy away from the problems he has encountered, like the deepening of the Elbe River waterway for big ships, and issues with the state-owned HSH Nordbank.

Mr. Scholz has been a force in efforts to reform Germany's inter-state fiscal adjustment system.

At times, Mr. Scholz comes across as a bit of an automaton. For instance, when he misspeaks or uses the wrong word, he doesn’t simply continue talking, but goes back to the beginning of his sentence – like someone reading a text out loud who has accidentally moved to the next line.

He doesn’t exactly make a nimble impression, but perhaps he doesn’t have to. Mr. Scholz currently has a 46-percent approval rating. The only question is whether he will be able to continue governing the city alone or forced to form a coalition with the Green Party.

Since 2011, Mr. Scholz has enjoyed a large majority as Hamburg’s mayor, a strong margin he owes in part to his predecessors. Former Deputy Mayor Ronald Schill and former mayors, Ole von Beust and Christoph Ahlhaus, both members of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, had transformed the city into too much of a Punch-and-Judy show for its residents. Their tenures ended in a budget deficit, a half-finished concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, and Hamburg’s loss of influence in the Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents the 16 German states at the national level.

It was the ideal starting point for Mr. Scholz, a pragmatist who had made a simple promise to voters – he would only make promises that he could keep. He has been successful in applying the so-called Merkel method, which is to avoid talking too much about grand visions and plans, and to work on individual issues instead.

His strategy has made him popular not only among ordinary voters.

Instead of resorting to extravagant rhetoric and showy appearances, Mr. Scholz prefers to remain levelheaded and to the point, and to pursue pro-business policies. This strategy has made him popular not only among ordinary voters, but also among business owners and merchants, of whom there are many in Hamburg.

Some are beginning to ask whether Mr. Scholz shouldn’t consider running for office at the national level, perhaps even trying to beat Ms. Merkel at her own game in the next national election. He likes the comparison with the chancellor, noting the two of them have always worked well together during his tenure as federal labor minister in the SPD’s previous coalition with the Christian Democrats from 2005 to 2009, and in the Bundesrat.

Would Mr. Scholz ever run for the chancellorship? “Well, he’s certainly qualified,” said a senior SPD politician.

His critics, however, say he can be standoffish and his propensity for irony is sometimes interpreted as arrogance. And few see him as a magnetic politician capable of inspiring the masses.

But then, that is something he and Ms. Merkel also have in common.


Video: Hamburg’s atmosphere.

Simon Book is a member of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. Klaus Stratmann is an editor in the Berlin bureau, where he covers politics and energy policy. To contact the authors: book@handelsblatt.com, stratmann@handelsblatt.com

 

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