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7 February 2024

How Olaf Scholz lost Germany

German voters have come to distrust their chancellor – but that’s just the start of his problems.

By Wolfgang Münchau

When Olaf Scholz was elected German chancellor in 2021, the direst consequences of Angela Merkel’s policies were not yet apparent: Germany’s geopolitical alliance with Russia and dependence on Russian gas; a complacent industrial policy; a woeful underinvestment in defence. All these issues blew up shortly after Scholz took power.

Now, just over two years into his tenure, the German public seems to have decided that Scholz is not up to the task. His popularity ratings are the lowest ever recorded by a German chancellor. The three parties of his coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the liberal FDP – are together polling at 32 per cent, down 20 points from the election. With the usual caveats about polls being unreliable guides – especially to an election that is still 18 months away – a second term for Scholz looks improbable.

What has gone wrong? First, Scholz does not like to talk much, and when he does, he appears to be saying one thing while doing another. The expression “Scholzing” arose when Scholz’s office frustrated weapons deliveries to Ukraine, even though he had committed to them.

Scholzing has backfired. His government spends more money on aid to Ukraine than any other in Europe, yet it does not get the credit for it. Like Scholz, the Germans are conflicted over this war. He could have played this straight: people knew when they elected him that he was not a man of big ideas and charisma. They did not know about his aversion to communication. Now, they no longer trust him.

His unfortunate tendency to squint his eyes and wear a wide grin accentuates that feeling. Friedrich Merz, the opposition leader, once referred to his Smurf-like grin. The Scholzing, the lack of communication, the grinning – they combine to create an unflattering picture. The daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine once summed this up when it showed a picture with a grinning Scholz in front of a tank: “Would you buy a second-hand tank from this man?”

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It would not have done that to Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor from 1974 to 1982 on whom Scholz seems to model himself. Schmidt also governed at a time of global upheaval, but had qualities Scholz lacks. Schmidt was a brilliant orator. People trusted and respected him, including voters who supported the opposition.

We should remember that Scholz won the 2021 campaign not because of anything he did or said, but because support for his two opponents collapsed. Having started as the candidate least likely to succeed, he ended up as the only viable option. His success in 2021 is also why his SPD party has not been panicking. Scholz managed to win against the odds then. He may do it again. But the SPD is getting nervous. Voters have formed an opinion about the chancellor, and he will be up against Merz, chairman of the CDU and a political heavyweight.

Bild, Germany’s influential tabloid, is running a campaign to replace Scholz with Boris Pistorius, the popular SPD defence minister. A potential moment for an insurrection is September, when three state elections will be held in eastern Germany. But it is far from clear that a change of leader would fix the SPD’s problem. Pistorius is popular right now for the same reason Scholz was popular in 2021. People do not know him very well. He has only been in front-line national politics for a year.

Behind the criticism of Scholz’s leadership lie deeper problems that are more important than the personal qualities of the chancellor: a general disorientation in Germany following geopolitical and social change; unhappiness about the coalition’s economic policies; and a revolt against all things Green.

The faltering economy is probably the worst part. It is not only about the growth numbers; everybody can see that deindustrialisation is happening. There are, in principle, two ways for a government to address this problem. To attempt to reverse deindustrialisation, as the US has been doing. Or to prepare the country for a post-industrial strategy. Germany’s government is doing neither. It wants to cling on to the old industrial model, but dress it up as “green industry”. Voters are not that stupid.

Perhaps the single biggest setback for Scholz was the ruling by the German constitutional court in November declaring the coalition’s budget practice in violation of ultra-strict national fiscal rules. In Germany, this is the political equivalent of being caught with your fingers in the till. To circumvent the debt rules, the coalition had shifted money into an off-budget special fund, and the court said this was not lawful.

This is not just reputational damage. The ruling had direct effects. It forced the government to adopt an austerity budget in the middle of a recession. The measures included the withdrawal of subsidies for electric cars and agricultural diesel fuels, causing more unhappiness. One restive group is the farmers, who have taken to the streets in protest.

This is Germany’s winter of discontent. By the time of the federal elections, another winter will have passed; Scholz’s hope is that by then things will have got better.

But even if the economy were to recover, I doubt Scholz and his coalition partners would get the credit. What voters are seeing is that the coalition parties lack a consensus on the future direction of the economy. As we approach the next round of German elections at state and federal level, those differences will come into focus much more clearly. Herein lies the deeper problem: it is not really Scholz that is the issue. It is that Germany has become a lot harder to run.

[See also: How to stop the far right in Europe]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?