Can the new German Chancellor revive the left in Europe?

BERLIN – Last December, as he was preparing what most saw as a desperate attempt to become the next German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz halte...


BERLIN – Last December, as he was preparing what most saw as a desperate attempt to become the next German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz halted his campaign preparations for a video call with an American philosopher.

Mr Scholz, a Social Democrat, wanted to talk to the philosopher, Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard, about why center-left parties like his had lost working-class voters to populists, and the two spent an hour discussing a seemingly simple theme that would become the centerpiece of the Scholz campaign: “Respect”.

Mr Scholz will be sworn in as the ninth post-war German chancellor – and first Social Democrat in 16 years – on Wednesday succeeding Angela Merkel and heading a tripartite coalition government. Defying polls and experts, he led his party for 158 years from the precipice of irrelevance to an unlikely victory – and now wants to show that the center-left can become a political force again in Europe.

Mr Scholz won for many reasons, not least because he persuaded voters that he was the person closest to Merkel, but his message of respect resonated as well. For the first time since 2005, the Social Democrats have become the strongest party among the working class. Just over 800,000 voters who abandoned the party for the far left and far right returned in the last elections.

“Scholz has hit a nerve,” said Jutta Allmendinger, president of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and inequality expert who has known Scholz for almost two decades. “Many see him as a Merkel clone,” she noted. “But he is a social democrat at heart.”

Mr Scholz served as finance minister in Merkel’s conservative-led coalition government and pledged continuity and stability. But he also intends to make Germany a kind of political laboratory, in an attempt to mend the bridge between the Social Democrats and the working class, an effort parallel to President Biden’s political agenda in the USA.

For the center-left in Europe, Mr. Scholz’s victory comes at a critical moment. Over the past decade, many of the parties that once dominated European politics have become almost obsolete, seemingly devoid of ideas and largely abandoned by their working-class base.

Political energy has been on the right, especially the populist far right, with many American conservatives flocking to countries like Hungary to study Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy”, the far-right prime minister of this country.

“Everyone is watching us,” said Wolfgang Schmidt, longtime advisor to Mr Scholz, whom he has chosen to lead. the chancellery. “If we do it right, we have a real chance. We must not make mistakes, we must not disappoint expectations.

During her last years in power, Ms Merkel, a conservative, was sometimes seen as the only defender of liberal democracy in an era of global strongholds, whether Russian President Vladimir V. Putin Where President Donald J. Trump. Yet Germany was not immune to populist fury, and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won seats in parliament and has become a political force in the east of the country.

“The biggest concern in politics for me is that our liberal democracies are coming under more and more pressure,” Scholz says of himself on the Social Democrats show. website. “We have to solve the problems so that the cheap slogans of the populists do not take hold.”

Mr. Scholz has traveled extensively in the United States, including in the years leading up to the 2016 election. One of his advisers recalled that in a private conversation he even predicted a Trump victory. Then he spent months analyzing why the Democrats lost and reading a series of books by working-class authors in the United States, France and Germany.

“He has studied very carefully what has happened in the United States,” said Cem Özdemir, eminent member of the Greens and minister in Mr Scholz’s new government. “He studied the defeats of the Democrats in the United States. Why didn’t Hillary win?

When Mr Scholz’s own party collapsed in the 2017 election, losing for the fourth time in a row, he wrote a ruthless article concluding that one of the reasons the Social Democrats had lost their core voters was that they had not offered them “recognition”.

Last year, in the midst of the first Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Scholz read Professor Sandel’s latest book, “The Tyranny of MeritIn which the Harvard philosopher argued that the meritocratic narrative of education as an engine of social mobility had fueled resentment and contributed to the rise of populists like Mr. Trump.

“The 2016 backlash made it clear that just telling people, ‘You can do it if you try’ was not an adequate response to the stagnation of wages and job losses brought on by globalization,” Professor Sandel said in an interview. What the social democratic elites missed was the insult implicit in this response to inequality, because what it was saying was, ‘If you are fighting in the new economy, your failure is your fault. “”

During the last Social Democratic government in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, cut benefits and embarked on a painful labor market overhaul between 2003 and 2005 with the aim of reducing the number of unemployed which had exceeded five million. Mr Scholz, then secretary general of the party, became the public face of the changes.

Unemployment fell gradually, but the program also helped create a sprawling low-wage sector and prompted many working-class voters to quit the Social Democrats.

Professor Sandel argues that it was around this time that the center-left parties, including President Bill Clinton’s Democrats, embraced the triumphalism of the right-wing market, identified more with the values ​​and interests of the educated people and began to lose touch with working class voters.

Mr Scholz, once a fiery young socialist who joined his party as a teenager, defended workers as a labor advocate in the 1970s before gradually softening in a post-ideological centrist. He is now considered to be to the right of a good part of the party base, much like Mr Biden, with whom he is sometimes compared, although like Mr Biden he showed some reflexes. liberals.

“He was an idealist in his youth, then became a technocrat and even a hyper-technocrat, but I think he might become more radical again, at an older age,” said Kevin Kühnert, a prominent figure in the social democratic left. wing who is the new secretary general of the party.

During the pandemic, then finance minister Mr Scholz impressed left critics by unlocking hundreds of billions of euros in state aid to help struggling workers and businesses. The pandemic, in turn, has highlighted how those suddenly deemed essential – nurses and social workers, but also garbage collectors, supermarket cashiers and delivery men – often don’t earn much.

“The pandemic has shown on whom our society rests, which works hard and still benefits too little from an economic recovery,” Scholz told reporters during the election campaign.

Mr. Scholz will now lead a tripartite government with the Progressive Greens and the Libertarian Free Democrats. The treaty that governs them provides for increasing the minimum wage to 12 euros, or about $ 13.50 an hour, against 9.60 euros today, an instant wage increase for some 10 million people. Mr. Scholz also pledged to build 400,000 homes per year, 100,000 more than expected and guarantee stable pension levels.

More abstract, but just as important, is its promise of another “industrial revolution” that will aim to make Germany a manufacturing powerhouse for the carbon-neutral era and provide the economic foundation for the welfare state of the United States. future.

“We have to tell people two things,” Scholz said during the campaign. “First, we need respect, we need good pay and proper recognition for the job. And second, we have to make sure that there will be good jobs in the future.

Across the European Union, Social Democrats rule in nine of the 27 Member States, and the lessons of Germany are already proving influential. In France, the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who recently announced his own long-term presidential candidacy, To mentioned the theme of “respect”.

But the slogans don’t go far. The Social Democrats topped the split vote in September in Germany, but gathered just 26 percent of the total, far from the 40 percent they recorded at the start of Mr Schröder’s first term. Mr Kühnert, the party’s general secretary, said Mr Scholz’s challenge is to show that the social democratic model is the right approach for the country and beyond.

“We hope that our electoral victory in Germany will send a signal for the rebirth of social democracy at international level,” said Mr Kühnert. “We are looking first and foremost to the rest of Europe. Because we have to strengthen the EU in the years to come if we are to have something to say in the world in the years to come.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reports.



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