Olaf Scholz to take charge of Germany as Merkel era ends

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  • Olaf Scholz replaces Angela Merkel, who served as Germany's chancellor for four consecutive terms.
  • The new chancellor has spoken in favour of compulsory vaccination in the country as infection numbers rise. 
  • Scholz became vice-chancellor and finance minister in 2015. 

Germany's Parliament will elect Olaf Scholz on Wednesday as the country's next chancellor, bringing the curtain down on Angela Merkel's 16-year reign, ushering in a new political era with the centre-left in charge.

Scholz led his Social Democrats to victory against Merkel's conservative CDU-CSU bloc in a landmark election in September, as the veteran chancellor prepared to leave politics after four consecutive terms in office.

Together with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, Scholz's SPD managed in a far shorter time than expected to forge a coalition that aspires to make Germany greener and fairer.

"I want the 20s to be a time of new beginnings," Scholz told Die Zeit weekly, declaring his ambition to push forward "the biggest industrial modernisation which will be capable of stopping climate change caused by mankind".

On Monday, he unveiled the country's first gender-balanced cabinet, putting equality rhetoric into practice, with women in crucial security portfolios.

READ | Germany is imposing a Covid-19 lockdown for unvaccinated people only

"That corresponds to the society we live in – half of the power belongs to women," said Scholz, who describes himself as a "feminist".

The centre-left's return to power in Europe's biggest economy could shift the balance on a continent still reeling from Brexit. The other major player, France, heading into presidential elections in 2022.

But even before it took office, Scholz's "traffic-light" coalition – named after the three parties' colours – was already given a baptism by fire in the form of a fierce fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

'No red lines' 

With intensive care beds running out in some regions and a rampant rise in infection numbers showing no signs of abating, Scholz and his new team have been pressed – including by Merkel – to agree on new curbs even before Parliament swears in them.

After Austria set the example and Germany struggled to boost stagnating vaccination numbers, the parties also came under pressure to make an about-turn on a pledge made earlier in the pandemic not to make vaccinations compulsory.

Scholz has since spoken out in favour of mandatory vaccination, saying he wanted MPs to vote on the issue before year's end with a view of implementing it in February.

"For my government, there are no red lines on what must be done. We're ruling nothing out," he told Die Zeit.

"That's not something we can do during a huge natural disaster or a health catastrophe like a pandemic."

Balancing act 

Dubbed "the discreet" by left-leaning daily TAZ, Scholz, 63, is often described as austere or robotic.

But he also has a reputation for being a meticulous workhorse.

An experienced hand in government, Scholz was labour minister in Merkel's first coalition from 2007 to 2009 before taking over as vice-chancellor and finance minister in 2015.

Yet his three-party-alliance is the first such mix at the federal level, as the FDP is not a natural partner for the SPD or the Greens.

The ecologist party was the last of the three to formally approve the deal, with 86 percent of its members voting yes on Monday.

Keeping the trio together will require a delicate balancing act taking into account the FDP's business-friendly leanings, the SPD's social equality instincts and the Greens' demands for sustainability.

Under their coalition deal, the parties have agreed to secure Germany's path to carbon neutrality, including through considerable investments in sustainable energy.

READ | Germany's Social Democrats vote to approve candidate to take over from Angela Merkel

They also aim to return to a constitutional no-new-debt rule – suspended during the pandemic – by 2023.

Incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, has vowed to put human rights at the centre of German diplomacy.

She has signalled a more assertive stance towards authoritarian regimes like China and Russia after Merkel's 16 years of commerce-driven pragmatism.

Critics have accused Merkel of putting Germany's export-dependent economy first in international dealings.

Nevertheless, she is still so popular at home that she would probably have won a fifth term had she sought one.

The veteran politician is also widely admired abroad for her steady hand in guiding Germany through many crises.

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