Scholz marks turbulent first year as German chancellor

A war in his backyard, galloping economic crisis, and unhappy partners at home and abroad -- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has weathered unprecedented shocks in his first year, while struggling to make a mark on the global stage.

Scholz marks turbulent first year as German chancellor
Scholz gave a speech at the Bundestag on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his coalition government. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

The ex-finance minister took office on December 8th 2021 promising continuity with the era of Angela Merkel, who ended her 16 years as chancellor a widely respected figure.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced him to rip up Germany’s post-war axioms and chart out new economic, defence and geopolitical directions for the country that prizes — and is valued for — its stability and predictability.

“We never before had a government faced with such a dramatically worsening situation, when it came to foreign and security policy, but also of course energy policy,” political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

Scholz’s coalition of his Social Democrats and partners Greens and liberals FDP had taken office planning ambitious climate policies and budget restraint.

READ ALSO: German government is pushing ambitious agenda despite turbulent first year 

The designated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (C), co-leader of the Greens and then designated German Minister for Economy and Climate Robert Habeck (L) and the leader of the Free Democratic FDP party and then designated German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (R) pictured in December 2021 in Berlin after leading members of Germany’s social democratic SPD party, the Greens and the FDP sealed their coalition deal to form a new government. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

But as Moscow dwindled its energy supplies in the wake of the war, Germany has had to halt its planned nuclear exit, restart mothballed coal power stations while burning through a budgetary hole in a scrum for oil and gas to replace Russian supplies.

And in a turning point for a country whose role on the world stage was still affected by memories of World War II, Scholz announced a historic shift on defence, vowing to re-arm Germany with a massive boost in military spending.

“Going by the dramatic events this year, he did pretty well,” said Nils Diederich, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Turning point

But Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at US think tank the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, warned that losing momentum was a danger, even if the initial response was “impressive”.

In this file photo taken on June 16, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz shake hands after a press conference following their meeting in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

“I think not being able to follow through with defence and security commitments is a concern,” she told AFP.

Not only is Germany trying to replenish its own military stocks, it is facing intense pressure from Ukraine to deliver what it has to help in the fightback against Russia.

The defence spending is high at a time when the treasury is also being pressed to help cushion a price shock fuelled by the energy crisis.

Huge investments are also required for the export giant to manage an economic transformation of reliance on cheap Russian energy or Chinese components to a diversified approach.

And governing in a three-way coalition means resolving each challenge inevitably involves squabbles that could unravel the fragile partnership.

Scholz’s government has managed to implement part of its programme, including raising the minimum wage and reforming unemployment benefits.

But with myriad crises not going away, the chancellor’s popularity ratings have suffered.

A survey by the Insa institute published Sunday in tabloid Bild showed 58 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with Scholz — compared with just 22 percent a year ago — and 64 percent are dissatisfied with his government, up from 36 percent.

emmanuel macron and olaf scholz

In this file photo taken on May 9, 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron make their way inside after inspecting an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) 

‘Going it alone’

As well as disagreements at home, there have been tensions with partners abroad.

European Union allies were upset that Scholz announced a massive 200-billion-euro ($207-billion) energy fund without first consulting them, complaining he should have focused on coming up with EU-wide measures.

Tensions have also arisen in the key relationship between Berlin and Paris over issues ranging from the energy fund to German plans for defence procurement.

Unlike Merkel, who, in her time, was widely respected as the voice to reckon with in Europe, Scholz has so far failed to step into the role on the international stage.

Merkel’s departure “has left a void”, said Eric Maurice, from the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

Scholz is “struggling to make his mark at the European level… He is still trying to find his bearings, he does not have Merkel’s experience.”

In this file photo taken on November 10, 2021 then outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference to present the annual report of the German Council of Economic Experts (Wirtschaftsweise) in Berlin. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

The view Scholz was seeking to “go it alone” was reinforced when he made the first visit to China by a G7 leader since the start of the pandemic in November, accompanied by a delegation of German business leaders.

The chancellor faced accusations he was pursuing the same mercantilist, trade-focused foreign policy of previous German governments, which led to economic ties flourishing with authoritarian Russia, but ultimately left Berlin vulnerable.

As Scholz heads into his second year in the job, many of the open challenges will continue to entangle him.

High energy prices will remain a major problem, particularly for electricity-hungry German manufacturers, said Sudha David-Wilp, Berlin office director of US think tank the German Marshall Fund.

“Ensuring German competitiveness because of the increase in energy costs, particularly for industries like chemicals and steel manufacturing, is the big challenge for Scholz,” she said.

The energy fund “is just a short-term fix. No one knows when energy prices are going to come down to pre-war levels”.

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OPINION: Oktoberfest revelry reveals the political storm brewing in Bavaria

Munich's world famous Oktoberfest is back to its boisterous best after the pandemic. But beer hall chit chat is revealing an uneasy political landscape ahead of Bavaria's state elections on October 8th, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: Oktoberfest revelry reveals the political storm brewing in Bavaria

After two years in which, for the first time since the Second World War, it was cancelled and a third in which many didn’t quite feel ready to go back, this year’s Oktoberfest is the first “normal” one since 2019. The Wiesn which runs until October 3rd, is once again seeing packed-out tents full of party-goers, sun-dappled beer gardens bustling with all sorts, and dirndl-clad waitresses weaving their way through it all clutching tankards of beer.

And just like every year, Munich’s notoriously grumpy residents are complaining about how expensive things have got while laying down money hand over fist. That’s the way things have always been over the 15 years that I’ve been an Oktoberfest regular – and, I’m pleased to report, it’s the way they were when I was there last week. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

Another thing people in Munich love to complain about as they drink away an afternoon: their politicians. And with the Bavarian state elections scheduled for the weekend after the Oktoberfest finishes, politics is especially topical this year.

Many in Munich are already steeling themselves for something of a double-whammy when, on Sunday, October 8th – still trying to shake their accumulated mega-hangover – a political headache hoves into view.

On current polling, the coalition of CSU and Freie Wähler should be able to press on for another five years, but with Markus Söder’s conservative CSU down from 37.2 percent to somewhere nearer the 30 percent mark and Hubert Aiwanger’s populist Freie Wähler up from 11.6 percent into the high teens.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU), and Munich mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD), kick off Oktoberfest with the traditional beer tapping on September 16th.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU), and Munich mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD), kick off Oktoberfest with the traditional beer tapping on September 16th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

On paper that’s not a particularly difficult situation, especially compared to neighbouring Thuringia, where a minority three-party coalition is having difficulties, and the opposition is under fire for pushing through laws with votes from the far-right. In practice, though, it’s less simple than that. 

‘The way we were…’

And people in Munich are used to their politics being pretty straightforward. For decades, Bavaria was essentially a one-party state, with the CSU guaranteed to win. Between 1970 and 2003, the party took over 50 percent of the vote every single time – unimaginable in other parts of Germany long used to coalition government.

CDU-affiliated, yet staunchly independent, the CSU’s unique success was based on the broad-church conservatism of Germany’s Christian Democrats rendered specifically palatable to Bavarians – a people not exactly known for their lack of self-confidence – with a good dose of regional chauvinism and a pinch of outright populism.

READ ALSO: Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany

The proposition was clear: strong state governments in Munich keep interference from far-away federal administrations at bay, so all true Bavarians – whether they actually like CSU policy or not – should vote CSU at state level. 

Essentially, the CSU was the political translation of Mia sann mia, that dialectal dictum which literally means “We are us” – i.e. we are proud to be Bavarian, and by the mid-2000s, had become as used to winning as that other enduringly dominant force from down south, Bayern München.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU) greets beer on September 2nd.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder (CSU) greets beer on September 2nd. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Kolbert

In another parallel to the football team, the CSU was also utterly ruthless with losers. When they plunged from 60.7 percent in 2003 to 43.5 percent to 2008 and were left looking for a coalition partner for the first time since the mid-1960s, this was considered a shameful anomaly and grounds to fire the manager. Yet as it turned out, the drop below 50 percent wasn’t a blip, and no amount of sacking the coaches could change that.

After a brief upward tick in 2013, the 2018 ballot saw the CSU plumb unprecedented electoral depths under the 40 percent mark – and Markus Söder manage to stay in post. 

READ ALSO: 7 things to know about the Bavaria 2018 election

Bavaria’s voters change behaviour

Since the alarm bells first started ringing in 2008, it’s become clear that the CSU’s Mia sann mia shtick is wearing thin. Bavaria’s electorate is proving ever less willing to sacrifice its political preferences on the altar of strong regional government, with urban high-earners turning to the FDP and rural voters switching in their droves to the AfD and the Freie Wähler.

And in a region where politics has always been done in beer halls and tents at boozy fairs – the Oktoberfest could be considered unusual for not having political rallies – populists draw frothy roars of delight when they spool off the usual list of demands: fewer foreigners, more nurses; banning gender-neutral language, etc.

While the AfD hoovers up the genuine xenophobes (of which rural areas have no shortage), ‘the Free Voters’, as they’re called, pretend that they’re not a political party, having correctly perceived that many distrust even the very idea of political formations these days, selling themselves instead as the ‘voice of the silent majority’ to protest voters. 

After these two outfits first entered the Bavarian Parliament in 2008, the CSU response was been to fight fire with fire and populism with populism. Yet the CSU is now learning what many middle-of-the-road conservative parties elsewhere have already found out: the right-wing end of their vote has become more radical of late, and the traditional conservative strategy of chucking it the odd scrap of red meat and then governing sensibly just gives it an appetite for more red meat.

What is more, the Freie Wähler’s leader Hubert Aiwanger has got a whole Bavarian butcher’s shop of the stuff, saying whatever he thinks will strike a chord with the disappointed and dissatisfied, deftly appealing to a peculiarly Bavarian sense of having been slighted (they never got over being ruled from Berlin) and turning protest voting into permanent voter migration.

Hubert Aiwanger grimaces during a press conference on anti-Semitism accusations in Bavaria

Free Voters’ leader Hubert Aiwanger during a press conference on anti-Semitism accusations in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

With his constant complaints that ordinary, right-thinking Bavarians are not being listened to, he has hit on a political M. O. which has made him unstoppable. So much so that, when it was recently revealed that he had, as a schoolboy, been in possession of flyer filled with hate-speech and offering (loose translation:) ‘traitors of the fatherland a free trip through the chimney stacks at Auschwitz’, he even managed to turn that to his advantage, issuing a mealy-mouthed apology while claiming that it had all been a media campaign to shut him up in the run-up to the election…


Different Oktoberfest chit chat

Hence the upcoming political headache. In Munich, structurally less conservative than rural Bavaria, Aiwanger is viewed by many with suspicion, even fear. Campaign posters with his face are defaced with Hitler ‘taches and zombie-lobotomy forehead scars.

Yet Markus Söder cannot risk an open break with him for fear of making him a martyr elsewhere, especially given that both the Greens and the FDP, Söder’s other potential coalition partners, are in the electoral doldrums now that the federal so-called ‘traffic light coalition’ has turned sour – and in no mood to help the CSU, under whose dominance they have suffered for so long.

Meanwhile, expectations in the once-dominant formation are now so low that Söder would probably have to get a result south of 30 percent to be at risk of being deposed. 

So everything points towards an uneasy continuation of the status quo: a weakened CSU in hock to a populist protest movement. Alternatively, they might be able to try for a “Jamaica” coalition if both the Greens and FDP scrape back in over the 5 percent hurdle, but it would be a steep hill to climb. Whatever happens, Söder – once seen as a strongman, now pitied – will most likely keep limping on. 

30 percent as the new 50 percent? Tripartite coalition options? Unsuccessful leaders being allow to stay put?

This isn’t the kind of Oktoberfest talk that Munich is used to. So in that one sense, this year’s Wiesn did actually feel very different to many of yesteryear. By next year, though, it’ll probably be completely normal.