On August 12, Olaf Scholz, the candidate for the chancellery of the Social Democratic Party, was all smiles. First, the SPD had just overtaken the Greens in the polls and was chasing the conservatives of the CDU. Then, his campaign stopped in Hamburg, “his” city, where he kept an apartment – he had been able to take a jog in the early morning on the banks of the Elbe. Finally, he could show journalists his successes in the port city: free nurseries, an employment agency for young people who have dropped out of school and a myriad of new housing units. Before becoming vice-chancellor, he was its undisputed mayor, from 2011 to 2018. In these two positions, despite his lack of charisma, he built the reputation of a man of action, reliable. An image that allows him to count one to four points ahead of the Conservatives in opinion studies, on the eve of the federal election on September 26.
If the Germans had the possibility of directly appointing their chancellor, their choice would fall on Olaf Scholz. The current Minister of the Economy reassures them, with his calm phrasing, without a word higher than the other. This understated style is that of Hamburg. The city where he grew up, discovered politics, and where he made the springboard for an exemplary career. Nicknamed the “gateway to the world”, the rich Hanseatic city is a privileged entry point to apprehend the favorite of the succession to Angela Merkel.
No one, except by Scholz himself, imagined him in this place when he was appointed by the SPD, in August 2020, to lead the campaign. There is, however, a precedent in Hamburg. Undermined by quarrels, the Land federation relies on him, for lack of anything better, to take over the city from the conservatives in 2011. Playing with the image of a pragmatic manager, after his stint at the Ministry of Labor, from 2007 to 2009, he then returned to the centrist tradition of the Hamburg SPD, reputed to be the most right-wing in the country. “This is how the party has repeatedly succeeded in attracting far more than its traditional voters,” he explained. “By making sure the city’s economy runs smoothly.” Bingo: the Social Democrats even obtain an absolute majority in the local parliament.
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Yet during his early years as an activist, with his long, curly hair, Olaf Scholz was more on the far left of the party. He even advocated “going beyond the capitalist economy”. Vice-president of the “Jusos”, the young socialists, he rejected the typically Hamburg social-democratic pragmatism of Helmut Schmidt, SPD chancellor from 1974 to 1982. And took part in demonstrations against the installation on German soil of nuclear rockets American medium-range – a response to missiles deployed by the USSR, beyond the Iron Curtain. “We had heated debates in the section of Rahlstedt, a working-class suburb of Hamburg, where he spent his childhood and took his card from the SPD, at the age of 17”, remembers its then leader, Günter Frank, mentor of the youngster. Olaf Scholz in his early days.
Now Olaf Scholz is repeating himself to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Schmidt, from Hamburg like him. “He calmed down by discovering the reality of social relations on a daily basis, by starting to practice as a labor lawyer in the mid-1980s, defending workers,” says Günter Frank. Scholz himself speaks of “detoxification” from the radical ideas of his early days. This explains his lack of appetite for a coalition with the anti-capitalists of Die Linke, in the event that it would be possible to build an alliance of three left-wing parties, with the Greens, after the election on Sunday. The scenario is however waved like a red rag by the conservatives, Olaf Scholz having made the tactical choice not to rule out the possibility of such a coalition, as desired by a large part of the SPD, whose leadership, like the base, is located further to the left than its champion. A useful positioning, too, to raise the stakes with the Liberals of the FDP, a more likely partner, but opposed to the tax increases it defends.
Scholz knows he’s going to have to compromise if he’s going to build a coalition. They will be essential to get its partners to accept two key points of its program: the minimum wage of 12 euros per hour and the construction of 400,000 housing units per year, a quarter of which is social housing. On this last point, his action in Hamburg speaks in his favor. “Thanks to him, it is the city that has built the most new residences per inhabitant in recent years in Germany, and the one where rents should stop increasing first, according to the Bundesbank”, notes Marc Wildmann, of the magazine The time. New buildings continue to flourish, particularly in the area of the old port, where around ten cranes are busy.
Critics of his management in Hamburg
But Scholz’s Hamburg record is not without criticism. He is accused of having blocked the decrease in automobile traffic in the city center. “It was only when he left for Berlin to become Minister of Finance, in 2018, that the city was able to get started, with his successor”, notes the ecologist Till Steffen, Minister of Justice of the second Scholz government. He is also suspected of having pushed, in 2016, the Hamburg tax administration to allow Warburg, a local bank, to fraudulently keep 47 million euros that had been wrongly paid to him. “Scholz received several times, at this time, the boss of the Warburg, points out Marc Wildmann. He says that he does not remember their conversation, although he has an excellent memory.”
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In Hamburg, no one has also forgotten its disastrous management, in July 2017, of security on the sidelines of the G20. Sinning by excess of confidence, he assured his fellow citizens that there would be very few clashes, before very violent clashes between anti-capitalist militants and the police, causing significant damage. “It was a very hard time for him, because he sees himself as someone who solves problems and not apologizes for it, as he ultimately did,” says Christoph Holstein, his former spokesperson at the town hall. The failure brought to light sometimes excessive self-confidence, such as difficulty adjusting to a sudden crisis. A major difference with Angela Merkel, of which he nevertheless wants to be the natural heir.