The second-most powerful official in Germany’s new government, if the parties sign off on the coalition agreement reached early Wednesday, is likely to be a political heavyweight few people outside of Germany have ever heard of.
Yanked out of the relatively obscure post of Hamburg mayor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz will not only take on the powerful finance minister post long occupied by Wolfgang Schäuble, but will be designated vice chancellor, a title usually reserved for the leader of the junior coalition party. The cabinet posts have not been officially announced but have been widely reported in the German media.
The great success of outgoing Social Democratic (SPD) leader Martin Schulz in the coalition talks was not only to nab those two titles for Mr. Scholz but to get the Foreign Office for himself. Although the conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel will continue to be the face of Germany to the world, Social Democrats Mr. Scholz and Mr. Schulz will have ample opportunity to strut on the global stage.
Scholz has long been a force to be reckoned with in the party.
A trained lawyer, Mr. Scholz played a key role in negotiating the division of tax revenues between the federal and state governments in 2014, taken as one indication among many he has the chops to take on the finance role. (Hamburg is one of three cities that also rank as states, making its mayor a peer of prime ministers in the other states.)
In the coalition talks themselves, the tax policies agreed on are largely seen as his work, and no doubt played a role in his winning the cabinet post. In any case, Mr. Scholz has been considered a heavyweight in the SPD for some time and is thought to nurture ambitions to one day be chancellor himself.
His appointment to the dual role in the new government brings him a lot closer to that goal. It may be internal discussions of tax policy that propelled him to the Finance Ministry, but it will be his role as Germany’s top representative in euro zone policy that will have the biggest international impact.
The coalition agreement must be approved in a rank-and-file vote of SPD members and the opposition in the party to a renewed grand coalition makes that vote, to be announced March 4, anything but a rubber stamp. But it will be hard for members to overlook the party’s success in securing altogether six cabinet positions, especially as the party establishment is fully behind the coalition. In fact, it was Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats who were doing most of the grousing after the cabinet list was leaked.
Mr. Scholz was a deputy in the national parliament over the span of a decade and took on several responsibilities there. He had a brief tenure as labor minister in Ms. Merkel’s first government, before returning to Hamburg to win the 2011 election as mayor with an absolute majority in the city parliament after a long Christian Democratic reign.
The Hamburg mayor’s only brush with the international public was hosting the G-20 Summit last year, marred as it was by violent protests and controversial police reaction. He publicly apologized for the riots but defended the police tactics, which included the use of water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas to disperse crowds.
But the 59-year-old Mr. Scholz has long been a force to be reckoned with in the party. Considered a slick strategist, he was critical of Mr. Schulz’s campaign in the general election last year, saying it lacked clear principles. The campaign ended with the SPD posting its worst postwar result with just over 20 percent of the vote, half the support it got when it catapulted the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, into office in 1998.
Going into last year’s campaign, Mr. Scholz was one of six deputy chairs in the party, but he declined to campaign nationally, considering it a lost cause with Mr. Schulz’s strategy. The outgoing party leader, who will now be replaced by Andrea Nahles as chair, at first wanted to take the SPD into opposition to sharpen its political profile. He reversed his position when a first attempt by Ms. Merkel to form a coalition with two smaller parties collapsed, and Mr. Scholz was one of the backers of a new grand coalition.
Although Mr. Schulz snagged the Foreign Office for himself, it is Mr. Scholz with his dual title who emerges as the comer for the SPD. Former leader Sigmar Gabriel, who was foreign minister and vice chancellor in the outgoing grand coalition, was left without a cabinet chair when the music stopped this time.
Moderate, pragmatic and charismatic in a German fashion, Mr. Scholz will soon be making an impression on a much wider public. If party members vote to let the new coalition go ahead, he may even lead the SPD to higher ground and perhaps someday become the party’s first chancellor-candidate in a while with a real chance of winning.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.