BERLIN – Olaf Scholz is expected to take office on Wednesday as Germany’s ninth chancellor after World War II, succeeding Angela Merkel after her announced 16-year term.
Scholz’s government will take power with high hopes of modernizing the most populous nation in the European Union and tackling climate change, but faces the immediate challenge of dealing with the most difficult phase of the pandemic to date of coronavirus in Germany.
Scholz, 63, German vice-chancellor and finance minister since 2018, brings a wealth of experience and discipline to an unprecedented coalition of his center-left social democrats, green environmentalists and pro-business free democrats. The three parties present the combination of former rivals as a progressive alliance that will bring new energy to the country after Merkel’s near-record time in power.
Scholz will need the support of at least 369 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, which has 736 seats, to be elected chancellor. The coalition partners have 416 seats between them, so it should be assured of a comfortable majority.
Merkel, who is no longer a Member of Parliament, watched the opening of the session from the spectators’ gallery. Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.
The new government aims to step up efforts against climate change, by expanding the use of renewable energies and by advancing Germany’s exit from coal-fired electricity from 2038, “ideally” to 2030. It also wants to do more to modernize the country, including improving its notoriously poor mobile phone and Internet networks.
There will be an increase in the minimum wage to 12 euros ($ 13.50) per hour from the current 9.60 euros, which, according to Scholz, “means a salary increase of 10 million”. And the coalition also aims to build 400,000 new apartments per year in order to slow the rise in rental prices.
Scholz signaled the continuity of foreign policy, saying the government will defend a strong European Union and promote the transatlantic alliance.
The alliance brings both opportunities and risks for all involved, perhaps especially for the Greens. After 16 years in opposition, they will have to prove that they can achieve their overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a three-way alliance with partners who may have other priorities.
Green co-leader Robert Habeck will be Scholz’s vice-chancellor, heading a revamped economy and climate ministry. Government No. 3 will be Christian Lindner, the finance minister and leader of the Free Democrats, who insisted the coalition reject tax hikes and looser debt restrictions.
The new government presents itself as a break in both the style and the substance of the “grand coalitions” of the big traditional German parties that Merkel led for almost four years of her mandate, with the Social Democrats as junior partners.
In these strained alliances, the partners sometimes seemed especially preoccupied with blocking the plans of the other. Merkel’s last term saw frequent internal struggles, some within her own center-right Union bloc, until the pandemic struck. She leaves with a legacy defined in large part by her acclaimed handling of a series of crises, rather than big visions for Germany.
Scholz told his party last weekend that “it was difficult” to govern with Merkel’s bloc, which her Social Democrats narrowly beat in the September elections in Germany. He criticized the bloc’s “hitherto and nothing more conservatism”.
The agreement to form a coalition government between three parties that had significant differences before the elections was reached relatively quickly and in unexpected harmony.
“If the good cooperation that worked while we were in government continues to work, it will be a very, very good time for the tasks ahead,” said Scholz. He acknowledged that dealing with the pandemic “will require all of our strength and energy”.
German federal and state leaders last week announced tough new restrictions that largely target unvaccinated people. In the longer term, Parliament will consider a general mandate on vaccines. Germany has seen daily COVID-19 infections reach record levels this fall, although they may now level off, and hospitals are feeling the pressure. The country has so far recorded more than 103,000 deaths from COVID-19 as part of the pandemic.
Merkel said she would not seek another political role after guiding Germany through turbulent times. The 67-year-old did not disclose any future plans, but said earlier this year that she would take the time to read and sleep, “and then let’s see where I show up.”
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