OPINION: Scholz won’t revolutionise Germany – but change is welcome after Merkel

Germany has officially entered the post-Merkel era with new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Although similar to his predecessor in some ways, Scholz has the potential to be a stronger leader - and embrace change, writes Brian Melican.

Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz on government duty in Brandenburg in 2018.
Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz on government duty in Brandenburg back in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

“Better the devil you know,” runs the old adage. And when it comes to politics, this is one Germans live by. Having once taken a bet on a charismatic unknown quantity that went apocalyptically wrong, as a country we’ve since opted for stability at every opportunity. That’s why Angela Merkel, like chancellors Kohl and Adenauer before her, remained in power for 16 years. And that’s also why we now have Olaf Scholz as our new Bundeskanzler.


For while Scholz may be new to the Chancellery, he’s not new to government. In fact, faced with wobbly opponent Armin Laschet, Scholz looked very much the safe pair of hands this September: having been at the Treasury since 2018, he had neither gone on a spending spree nor left the economy to perish during the pandemic.

And his prior record as Mayor of Hamburg is strong: during his seven-year tenure here in the northern German city I call home, he returned the city state’s exchequer to the black, tackled its sub-standard educational performance, and even managed to get its Berlin-airport-style Elbphilharmonie built.

Scholz is aware both of Germans’ desire for continuity and his own reputation for being reliable – or boring even. And his campaign jokingly promoted this image, featuring him doing “Merkel hands” with a clever play on words: Er kann Kanzlerin, which translates literally as “He’s got what it takes to be the next Mrs. Merkel”. That was certainly the intended message. 

The SPD's Olaf Scholz and the CDU's Angela Merkel in the German Bundestag recently.
The SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the CDU’s Angela Merkel in the German Bundestag recently. Scholz will officially become German chancellor on December 9th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

As he continued his Grand Coalition working relationship with Merkel and organised a smooth handover without any bad blood, there’s even a portmanteau doing the rounds: “Scholzel”. Yet, even if they don’t realise it, with Scholz, Germans are getting something really rather different to Merkel. While the two certainly share a pragmatic approach, an unflappable demeanour, and a wry sense of humour, their political philosophies and methods are actually quite contrary. And we can expect to see the differences quite soon.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Germany is showing the world it can do grown up politics 

Scholz: stronger convictions than Merkel

In terms of political philosophies, Merkel has, since a radical neoliberal manifesto almost cost her electoral victory over Gerhard Schröder in 2005, been a conservative in the truest sense of the word: conserving the status quo has been her priority. It is thus one of the enduring ironies of Merkel’s 16 years in the Chancellery that she has become associated with several far-reaching shifts. They were, however, only executed under duress – and often in contradiction to the conservative policies with which she won elections. After all, nobody voting for Merkel’s CDU in 2005, 2009, or 2013 endorsed manifesto pledges to bin nuclear reactors, can conscription, or welcome a million migrants. 

Indeed, Merkel herself probably had little idea she would enact any of these policies – and likely didn’t want to. Just months before becoming “Mama Merkel” in 2015, she was on television coolly explaining her party’s hard-line stance on migration to a tearful Palestinian-born teenager on the verge of deportation. Or take gay marriage: Merkel herself voted against it in the Bundestag, but accepted the plaudits dealt out to her for modernising the CDU. With Germany’s outgoing Chancellor, it’s always been hard to tell where pragmatism ends and opportunism begins.

READ ALSO: An era ends – How will Germany and the world remember Merkel?

Scholz, on the other hand, is a conviction politician whose pragmatism is always in tension with his dogmatism. Dogmatism? Yes – because once Scholz has become convinced that something is right, it takes a lot to prove to him that it may have been wrong. In the early 2000s under Schröder, for instance, Scholz concluded that the Agenda 2010 policies (notably Hartz IV) were the only way to cure Germany’s economic ills; he then defended them so doggedly that he become known as Scholzomat – “Scholz-o-matic” – for robotically delivering verbatim statements about how Germany had to ‘become more competitive, people had to take more responsibility, cont. p.94.’

Indeed, it has taken him 20 years and countless SPD ballot-box defeats to understand that the party can only get back into power by being at least slightly kinder to society’s disadvantaged – and even now, the coalition agreement, although nominally scrapping Hartz IV sanctions, does not envision a wholesale reform of the system: there will be no steep rises in unemployment benefits, no complete removal of coercive measures, and certainly no universal basic income. The left of the party is unimpressed, but has little choice but to celebrate the small successes and blame the FDP.

READ ALSO: Scholz names Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet

On the positive side, Scholz’ unchanging convictions create the ideal environment for long-term systemic change: it is hard to imagine Scholz, like Angela Merkel, opting to reverse the phase-out of nuclear power in the late 2000s only to re-reverse after Fukushima in 2011. Scholz is no environmentalist, but is convinced that Germany needs to get the green energy transition right – and that this means providing lasting legislative framework and sustained funding to actually get it done.

Green co-leader Robert Habeck, incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and FDP leader Christian Lindner after signing the coalition agreement on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Track record for stronger leadership

This takes us on to the second point where, for all their prima facie similarity, Scholz and Merkel could not be more different. In Hamburg, Scholz became remembered for his uncomplicated relationship to hierarchies, telling the city’s SPD party conference that “if you want leadership from me, you’ll get it”.

Scholz has more class (and more sense) than to openly criticise a predecessor with whom he worked so well, but he has made clear how his approach differs in inaugural interviews over the last week. Talking to Die Zeit about how he intends to tackle the Covid crisis, for example, he underscored his willingness to speak to citizens directly if the situation demanded it – a well-packaged (and wholly justified) barb at how Angela Merkel, having addressed the nation to such effect in March 2020, then retreated into her Zoom bunker for various performative late-night slanging matches with the heads of state.

Both in immediate coronavirus policy and in wider matters of social, economic, and ecological reform over the coming four years, we can expect to see far stronger leadership from Olaf Scholz than with Angela Merkel, but with all of the same unruffled reliability. While I did not agree with all of Scholz’ policies in Hamburg, and have my doubts about how he views some major issues facing us, it’s still a combination that I personally am looking forward to. “Better the Scholzel you know”, says the German in me.

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.