Olaf Scholz is poised to lead the Left back to power in Germany for the first time in 16 years after he opened coalition talks this week following last month’s election victory for his Social Democrats (SPD)>
But despite all the talk of a “new departure” and “change”, the chances are Germany’s next government will not stray that far from the centrist path set by Angela Merkel.
Mr Scholz presented himself to voters as the natural heir to Mrs Merkel. He even adopted her trademark pose with both hands joined together in a diamond shape.
Now he appears set to adopt another strategy straight out of the Merkel playbook, using coalition politics to keep his own party in check.
Mr Scholz was flanked by the hard-Left at the coalition talks this week. While he wore a sober grey suit, Norbert Walter-Borjans turned up in a black bomber jacket.
Norbert Walter-Borjans (left) leaving coalition talks
Credit: ODD ANDERSEN
Mr Scholz is not SPD leader. He lost a leadership election to Mr Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, little known figures from the hard-Left, in a Momentum-style takeover two years ago.
But he was recalled to run for chancellor because they knew they couldn’t win a national election.
The hard-Left hoped to exploit Mr Scholz’s popularity and dreamed of a left-wing coalition with the German Greens and the Left Party, a successor to the East German communist party.
But Germany did not swing left. Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) lost votes, but so did the Left, and the right-of-centre Free Democrats (FDP) made major gains.
The SPD’s only viable path to power now is a broad coalition with the Greens and the FDP, a pro-business party that favours low tax and deregulation.
Mr Scholz (left) with SPD leader Saskia Esken
Credit: WOLFGANG RATTAY
Any coalition that brings them together will be based on compromise. And Mr Scholz will have to manage it while dealing with an intake of new MPs that has skewed the SPD further to the left.
But that compromise may be exactly what he needs to take control of his own party.
Asked by Spiegel whether it could mean he ends up the weakest chancellor in years, Mr Scholz replied with a laconic: “Nah.”
“Power politics alone is not enough,” he said. “It is worth nothing if you don’t want anything. I became a politician because I want to make the world a better place.”
But the truth is the election result has changed the power dynamic. At heart a centrist like Mrs Merkel, Mr Scholz can use the FDP as cover to take on the hard-Left.
“The FDP will only enter into a government that strengthens the value of freedom and provides a real impetus for the renewal of our country”, Christian Lindner, the FDP leader, said in a warning shot before the coalition talks began.
Credit: ODD ANDERSEN
No one in Germany doubts Mr Lindner means it, after he walked out on coalition talks with Mrs Merkel four years ago and consigned his party to opposition because he wasn’t happy with the deal on the table..
Little detail has leaked from the new talks so far, but it appears the FDP has already dug in its heels against the SPD and Greens’ campaign promise to impose a speed limit on Germany’s motorways.
Mr Scholz, who drives a BMW, is said not to be particularly keen on a speed limit anyway But the opportunity to see off some of his party’s more radical policies will interest him more.
The SPD and the Greens both campaigned on pledges to raise taxes and abandon Germany’s longstanding policy of no new government debt.
Both issues are red lines the FDP says it is not prepared to cross, and it is rumoured the SPD and Greens are already preparing to drop controversial plans for a wealth tax on existing assets as the price of government.
Robert Habeck at the talks
Credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI
“We can also negotiate hard,” Annalena Baerbock, the Green leader, said ahead of the talks. But she also said: “It’s not easy when you dare to do something new. But if you don’t have the courage to build new bridges, nothing will happen.”
It’s not only in the SPD that the election result has changed the balance of power. Ms Baerbock had a poor campaign as the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, sqaundering an early lead with a series of mis-steps.
That has put her fellow leader, Robert Habeck, firmly in control of the party, according to insiders.
Like Mr Scholz, Mr Habeck is a pragmatist from the centrist wing of his party, and he is said to be close to Mr Lindner, despite their political differences.
It was Mr Lindner and Mr Habeck who brought the Greens and FDP together for two-way talks following the election to establish a common position before they met with Mr Scholz.
The three men are all cut from the same centrist cloth as Mrs Merkel, and they are likely to form a triumvirate at the heart of Germany’s next government.