For the first time in 16 years, Germany will have a center-left government and a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, whose job will be to fill the shoes of Angela Merkel, the woman who made Germany indispensable in Europe and the world.
Three parties have been haggling under strict secrecy to hammer out a new government since the Sept. 26 election. After much anticipation, they are expected to announce their governing deal for the next four years at 3 p.m. Berlin time.
Mr. Scholz is expected to be sworn in as chancellor early next month. He will immediately face a pressing roster of crises, including a pandemic that is spiraling quickly upward and border conflicts in Belarus and Ukraine.
It is the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time in modern history.
Mr. Scholz’s center-left party, which narrowly won the September election, governed with Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats for three of her four terms. Mr. Scholz himself was her finance minister for the last four years.
He will now lead an unusual three-way coalition with the progressive Greens and the smaller, pro-business Free Democrats.
“It’s typical for Germany: It’s change and continuity in one,” said Cem Özdemir, a prominent lawmaker for the Greens and one of 300 negotiators of the new coalition treaty.
There is clearly tension built into the new government, with important yet opposing ministries expected to be given to coalition partners who sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum. That tension is likely to remain a theme of the government and to test Mr. Scholz’s ability to balance competing agendas.
In one key concession, according to a person close to the coalition talks, the finance ministry will go to the leader of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, a fiscal conservative who has ruled out tax increases.
Mr. Lindner could serve as a brake on the new government’s boldest ambitions for change, especially those coming from the Greens, who had campaigned on revolutionizing the economy to meet the challenges of a warming planet.
The Greens did not walk away empty-handed. The party’s co-leaders, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, secured two powerful posts.
Mr. Habeck will run a new superministry combining the economy and climate, the person said, and Ms. Baerbock, who ran as the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, will be Germany’s first female foreign minister.
On issues ranging from Europe to trade and foreign policy, most analysts expect the new government to broadly stay the course set by its predecessor. But a number of urgent crises — and Mr. Scholz’s two more hawkish coalition partners — might force the new chancellor to rethink some past policies.
Mr. Scholz’s Germany could turn out to be somewhat more willing to throw its weight behind European integration and to close ranks with the United States in putting pressure on China and Russia.
But the buzzword was continuity.
“The new government will essentially be one of continuity, not change,” said Holger Schmieding, the chief economist of Berenberg Bank. “All those who were hoping that this would be the start of something completely different will be disappointed.”
Olaf Scholz succeeded in his campaign to become the next chancellor of Germany primarily by convincing voters that he would be very much like the towering and long-serving figure he will replace: Angela Merkel.
Terse, well-briefed and abstaining from any gesture of triumph, Mr. Scholz not only sounded like the outgoing chancellor, he perfected the art of embodying her aura of stability and calm to the point of holding his hands together in her signature diamond shape.
“He’s like a soccer player who studied videos of another player and changed his game,” said Robin Alexander, a long-term political observer of both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Scholz. “From temperament and political style all the way down to facial expression Scholz now channels Merkel. If Scholz was a woman he would wear pantsuits.”
With Mr. Scholz expected to unveil his new government on Wednesday and to take office next month, one question for Germany and for the whole of Europe and the world is: Can he deliver and fill Ms. Merkel’s very big shoes?
Rarely has a German leader come into office with so many burning crises.
As soon as he is sworn in as chancellor in early December, Mr. Scholz will have to deal with a surging pandemic, tensions at the Polish-Belarussian border, a Russian president mobilizing troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, a more confrontational China and a less dependable United States.
“The pressure is huge,” said Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The new government is taking office in a situation that has been heating up on multiple fronts. And when it comes to foreign policy, Olaf Scholz remains a bit of an enigma.”
Indeed, which Olaf Scholz will show up as chancellor in two weeks is a matter of intense speculation. A lifelong Social Democrat, Mr. Scholz, 63, has been a familiar face in German politics for more than two decades and served in two of Ms. Merkel’s governments, most recently as her finance minister.
But he has also been something of a political chameleon, a pragmatic politician who straddles left and right so easily it is sometimes hard to know where he stands.
Born in Osnabrück, northern Germany, Mr. Scholz grew up in Hamburg, the city he would later run as mayor. His grandfather was a railway man, his parents worked in textiles. He and his brothers were the first in his family to go to university.
He was still in high school when he joined the Social Democrats. A fiery young socialist, he spent a decade as a labor lawyer defending workers threatened by factory closures. Then, as secretary-general of his party under the last center-left administration of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he defended painful labor market reforms with a machine-like efficiency that earned him the nickname “Scholz-o-mat.”
When he was first elected into Parliament he sat with the left wing of his party. Today he is considered to be to the right of much of its base — not unlike President Biden in the United States, with whom he is sometimes compared.
As they haggled for weeks over the shape of their partnership, the three parties in the new German government faced a slate of pressing issues: how to finesse a green transition without busting the budget; how to handle relations with China and the United States; and how to ensure the cohesion of Europe, among many others.
But the one issue they had hoped was behind them suddenly vaulted to the top of their agenda, even before they took office: a spike in Covid cases that has thrust Germany into its worst crisis since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
In that first test, the incoming government stumbled badly, political observers agreed, and then regained its footing, though not before shaking the confidence of many Germans and perhaps still too late to check the spread of the virus before the winter holidays.
The incoming government sent decidedly mixed signals — allowing emergency powers for the pandemic to expire, ruling out another lockdown and playing down the latest wave — before the spike in cases forced an inglorious retreat to tougher measures.
Volker Wissing, general secretary of the Free Democrats, the libertarian partners in Mr. Scholz’s new coalition who have been most critical of coronavirus restrictions, put a message on Twitter this month that the situation in Germany’s health care system was “stable.” When cases surged, he deleted the post.
The fumbling raised immediate worries over how Germany — and Europe — would fare without the sure-handedness of the country’s longtime chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Virologists warned that the incoming government was failing the country on badly needed leadership. “They don’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation,” said Michael Meyer-Hermann, head of the systems immunology department at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, who has advised Ms. Merkel throughout the pandemic.
Allowing the national state of emergency to lapse on Nov. 25, risked sending “completely the wrong signal,” said Nina Warken, a conservative politician. The law was introduced by Ms. Merkel to allow the government to respond quickly to new waves of infection without having to get authorization from Parliament or states.
The new coalition has “misjudged the situation,” Markus Söder, Bavaria’s conservative leader, tweeted on Monday. “It is inappropriate to get rid of the state of pandemic emergency and simultaneously legalize drugs,” he added, referring to expectations that the new government will decriminalize cannabis.
After reports of ambulances driving Covid patients from overfilled hospitals in Bavaria to northern Germany and even Italy to have them treated, the incoming coalition hastily reworked a draft law and added a raft of tougher measures states could impose.
Those steps included vaccine mandates for people in certain high-risk jobs, mandatory tests in nursing homes and a vaccine or test requirement for those riding public transport or using a shared work space.
Whether it will be enough to appease the critics or will instead overshadow Mr. Scholz’s swearing-in next month remains a question.
“It is their first test,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg Bank, “and they haven’t even taken office.”
She’ll miss it by less than two weeks: Angela Merkel in all likelihood will not be the longest-serving German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck, the nation’s founding leader.
When Helmut Kohl finally gave up the keys to the chancellery in 1998, he had spent 5,870 days in the top job; if Olaf Scholz is sworn in as planned in early December, Ms. Merkel will leave office just days behind his record, the second-longest serving chancellor in postwar history.
Still, 16 years are a long time and after spending almost a quarter of her life in the highest office, many are wondering what Ms. Merkel might do next.
Her departure has been a long time coming — she announced that she wouldn’t run for re-election three years ago. Since then the rumor mills have been spinning. Some saw her accepting a guest lecturer role at an American university, while others hoped she would take on a senior role at the European Union or another international institution.
What was clear from the outset: She wanted to leave office on her own terms, in her own time. “I want at some point to find the right time to quit politics,” she told Herlinde Koelbl, a German photographer, in 1998. “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck.”
Two years ago, when she experienced fits of uncontrolled trembling, it appeared as if she would not make it to the end of her term. Yet if Ms. Merkel has fallen short of Bismarck in longevity in office, she shared with him the moniker of “iron chancellor” and pulled through.
At 67, Ms. Merkel is still young enough to take on other challenges, but has been characteristically tight-lipped about her retirement plans. When pressed, Ms. Merkel brushed away the idea that she even had the time to think about it, insisting that only when she was out of office would she be able to begin focusing on her next step.
“I think every government day has to be taken equally seriously and always looked at with the same alert eye,” she said. “I believe in governing in the midst of life and as sensibly as possible, and to do so until the last day of my responsibility.”
With that last day drawing ever closer, she has begun to speak more freely about a need she feels to pause long enough to rest and contemplate what truly interests her. In an interview given this summer after receiving an honorary doctorate — her 18th — from Johns Hopkins University, the chancellor gave the first real insight into how she envisions her future.
“I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will fall shut because I’m tired, then I’ll sleep a little bit, and then we’ll see,” she said.
But when Parliament approved a staff of nine full-time employees for her office as former chancellor, many were quick to point out that it was a formidable number for someone with plans to lie on the couch reading books.
“I would like in this next phase of life to consider very carefully what do I want to do,” she said in September.
“Do I want to write? Do I want to speak? Do I want to wander around? Do I want to be at home? Do I want to travel the world?” Ms. Merkel said. “For that reason, I have decided that at first I will do nothing, and I will see what happens. I think that is really fascinating.”
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