Olaf Scholz

Has the SPD Found its Own Merkel?

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    With less than a year to German federal elections, the Social Democrats are still not quite sure who is going to take on Angela Merkel. Hamburg’s popular mayor has an outside chance of becoming their candidate.

  • Facts


    • Federal elections must be held by October 2017. The country is currently ruled by a “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, but they will be rivals at the election.
    • Olaf Scholz has been governing mayor of Hamburg since 2011, and enjoys sky-high popularity within the city-state.
    • Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel has long delayed confirming his candidacy for federal chancellor next years. Now possible rivals are circling.
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German Chancellor Merkel and Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron pose for photo as they are welcomed by Hamburg’s Mayor Scholz and his wife before traditional historic banquet “Matthiae-Mahlzeit” (St. Matthew’s Day Banquet) at town hall in Hamburg
Olaf Scholz served as labor minister in Angela Merkel's first government. Source: Reuters

Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg, is riding high these days: local opinion polls show 75 percent of Hamburgers happy with his work. If there were elections next summer, he would easily win an absolute majority for the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD.

There are of course elections next year, but they are at a federal level. There, the SPD is doing much worse, with poll ratings stuck in the low 20s, a terrible performance for a party once dominant across much of the country.

In a variety of coalitions, the Social Democrats currently govern nine of Germany’s 16 federal states. Among the nine SPD state premiers, the 58-year-old Mr. Scholz is the stand-out performer. His most spectacular success has probably been the rescue of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Mr. Scholz inherited a complete mess of a project, with building suspended and costs spiraling on the ambitious riverside concert hall. But he has steered the building to successful completion, with the spectacular structure now hailed as an architectural wonder and a new Hamburg symbol. Albeit one that cost 10 times the original estimate.

Construction of new housing has accelerated since Mr. Scholz took office in March 2011, responding to the city’s serious housing crisis. Mr. Scholz aims to have 10,000 new apartments built annually, 3,000 of them social housing. On a federal level, Mr. Scholz’s interventions have revealed him to be a shrewd pragmatist, able to cut deals with politicians from other parties, especially the center-right Christian Democrats, the SPD’s federal coalition partners.

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