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This Is The Candidate To Beat In The Race To Become Germany's Next Leader

Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz is the front-runner in the polls to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz is the front-runner in the polls to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

HAMBURG, Germany — The hammering typically begins at 8 o'clock sharp and continues through the day, its pulsing sound echoing along the gleaming renovated buildings and canals of this city's harbor district. It's the heartbeat of Hamburg.

For the past 10 years, this has been the soundtrack to the transformation of Germany's largest port from one of run-down warehouses to a thriving cultural center filled with loft apartments, hotels and pedestrian trails and capped with a massive philharmonic hall, a glass goliath whose roof is in the shape of undulating ocean waves.

This is the city where Olaf Scholz, 63, grew up and served as mayor from 2011 to 2018. Supporters credit Scholz, of the center-left Social Democratic Party, for steering the city's construction spree. Now the German finance minister and vice chancellor, he's shaping up in national polls and debates as the front-runner to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's election on Sept. 26.

"We had real great housing problems," says Matthias Bartke, a Social Democratic member of parliament representing Hamburg-Altona, "and he made, in very few years, Hamburg one of the leading cities of the continent."

The harbor district of Hamburg is filled with new hotels and loft apartments and is crisscrossed by canals. Former Mayor Olaf Scholz helped transform this district from one of run-down warehouses into a thriving cultural district.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
The harbor district of Hamburg is filled with new hotels and loft apartments and is crisscrossed by canals. Former Mayor Olaf Scholz helped transform this district from one of run-down warehouses into a thriving cultural district.

That's because Scholz came in with a plan, Bartke says, and meticulously executed it. He believes Scholz would do the same as Germany's chancellor.

"Merkel is very good in solving crises when there is crisis," he says of the country's leader for past 16 years. "There are very few people who can handle it better. But she has no idea about the future. And Schulz has a very, very clear plan of how things should develop and look like."

Scholz's plan starts with the country's minimum wage. He vows to immediately raise it from 9.60 euros to 12 euros an hour, the equivalent of around $14 an hour — a pay raise for 10 million of Germany's lowest-paid citizens. He also aims to create more housing and make the economy a greener one.

But Scholz's two main rivals for chancellor have made similar promises. Observers think the difference is that Scholz has decades of experience at all levels of government, as well as a Rolodex to match. "He is kind of the identical twin of Joe Biden," says Heinrich Wefing, managing editor of the politics desk at one of Germany's largest newspapers, Die Zeit.

He calls Scholz a less chatty and gregarious version of Biden. "They are both men of the apparatus," says Wefing. "They are both centrists. They're institutionalists. They know how to get things done. And they know how to get a law passed. They know how to build consensus, they know how to build coalitions — and that is what he's best at."

Heinrich Wefing is the managing editor of the politics desk at <em>Die Zeit</em> newspaper in Hamburg. He draws parallels between the political careers of German chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and President Biden.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
Heinrich Wefing is the managing editor of the politics desk at <em>Die Zeit</em> newspaper in Hamburg. He draws parallels between the political careers of German chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and President Biden.

Wefing agrees with Bartke that Scholz, as mayor of Hamburg, was able to execute his plan on providing more housing for city residents. But the editor says Scholz's tenure also exposed flaws in his leadership. In 2017, when Hamburg was slated to host the Group of 20 summit, Scholz assured Merkel that it would be a safe and secure event. However, protests turned into riots that led to hundreds of injuries and more than a dozen arson attacks. Bartke and Wefing both say Scholz learned a lesson from the event, but that it tested the limits of his confidence.

The following year, Scholz became vice chancellor and finance minister in Merkel's government; the Social Democrats are a junior partner co-governing with Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union party.

During the coronavirus pandemic, he has helped keep the economy afloat through a stimulus package that kept workers in their jobs through the country's furlough program, called kurzarbeit. Wefing says Scholz's steady hand through the pandemic has convinced voters that he's chancellor material. And the mistakes of his opponents have convinced voters that they're not.

Olaf Scholz, Germany's finance minister, and Chancellor Angela Merkel talk at the beginning of the plenary session in the German parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin on Jan. 28.
Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
Olaf Scholz, Germany's finance minister, and Chancellor Angela Merkel talk at the beginning of the plenary session in the German parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin on Jan. 28.

In July, during a speech by Germany's president mourning the victims of floods, the chancellor candidate for Merkel's party, Armin Laschet, was caught on video laughing in the background. He apologized, but the gaffe contributed to an already plummeting popularity among voters.

Scholz's other main opponent, the Green party's Annalena Baerbock, enjoyed strong polling numbers in the spring, but as voters scrutinized her lack of government experience, they gradually lost interest.

That has left Scholz — a man who the parliamentarian Bartke says is the closest candidate in personality to Merkel. "I think the people are unhappy to lose Angela Merkel, because for 16 years, she was a symbol of stability," he says, a stability that he believes voters now see in the leadership of Scholz.

His campaign has exploited this resemblance: One of Scholz's campaign posters uses German's feminine form of the word "chancellor" to proclaim, tongue-in-cheek, Er kann Kanzlerin, or "He's got what it takes to be madame chancellor."

Back at Hamburg's harbor, tourists from across Germany mill at the base of the towering glass philharmonic hall, a project that was nearly abandoned before Scholz, as mayor, renegotiated the contract, pushing through its construction.

When NPR asked tourists which party they'll vote for, many said they're not interested in the election. Of those who were, the preferences ran the gamut, from the left-wing Die Linke party to the libertarian Free Democratic Party. But they all shared one thing in common: All said Scholz would make a good chancellor.

Christoph Homes, a security guard from a town on the border with the Netherlands, said he'll vote for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union but expects Scholz to prevail. "He's been in the game from the beginning and has served in virtually every office," said Homes, "so I think Scholz would be a good leader. It's his party I'm not keen on, and I'm not sure they'll get anything done. But then again, they're just not my party."

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Hamburg.

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