BERLIN (AP) – Center-left leader Olaf Scholz on Wednesday became Germany’s ninth chancellor after World War II, ushering in a new era for the European Union’s most populous country and largest economy after Angela Merkel’s 16-year rule.
The Scholz government is taking office with high hopes of modernizing Germany and fighting climate change, but faces an immediate challenge – tackling the country’s most difficult phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
MPs voted 395-303 to elect Scholz, with six abstentions – a comfortable majority, although his three-party coalition lacks 416 seats in the 736-seat lower house of parliament. Merkel, who is no longer a member of parliament, watched the parliament vote from a viewing gallery. The legislators gave her a standing ovation.
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Scholz, 63, who has been Germany’s vice-chancellor and finance minister since 2018, brings a wealth of experience and discipline to an untested coalition of his center-left Social Democrats, green environmentalists, and pro-business Free Democrats. The three parties portray the combination of former rivals as a progressive alliance that will bring renewed energy to the country after Merkel’s nearly record-breaking tenure.
“We are embarking on a new path that addresses major challenges this decade and far beyond,” Scholz said this week. If the parties succeed, he added, “this is a mandate for joint re-election in the next elections.”
Scholz, an imperturbable and supremely confident figure who has demonstrated the ability to quickly overcome setbacks, smiled when he was elected and formally appointed President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The new chancellor then returned to parliament to be sworn in. Scholz, who has no religious affiliation, dropped the optional “God help me” from his oath, as did Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.
Merkel wished Scholz the best in her handover ceremony. “Take possession of this house and work with it for the good of our country,” she said. Scholz thanked Merkel for her work, telling her that “you left your mark on this country.”
Merkel said she would not seek another political role, and did not mention her plans for the future on Wednesday. A 67-year-old woman said earlier this year that she needs time to read and sleep, “and then let’s see where I turn up.”
Scholz’s style is often compared to that of Merkel, although they belong to different parties. None of them are prone to public displays of emotion or uplifting speeches. The former Labor Minister and Mayor of Hamburg portrayed himself as both her natural successor and agent of change.
Scholz joked on Wednesday that he would stick to Merkel’s “northeastern Germany mentality” and that “little will change on this front.”
The new government aims to boost efforts to combat climate change by expanding the use of renewable energy sources and removing Germany from coal-fired energy from 2038, “ideally”, by 2030. It also wants to do more to modernize the country of 83 million. people, including improving their notoriously bad cell phones and internet networks.
He also plans more liberal social policies, including legalizing the recreational sale of cannabis and easing the path to German citizenship, and promises to intensify efforts to deport non-asylum immigrants.
The government also plans to increase the minimum wage in Germany and build hundreds of thousands of new apartments to contain rising rental prices.
Scholz outlined continuity in foreign policy, saying the government would advocate for a strong European Union and strengthen the transatlantic alliance. On Friday, he makes his first overseas trip to Paris, following the tradition of the German Chancellors, on the same day he leaves for Brussels to meet with the leaders of the EU and NATO.
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His tripartite alliance carries both opportunities and risks for everyone involved, perhaps most for the greens. After 16 years of opposition, they will have to prove they can achieve their primary goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by working with partners who may have different priorities.
Co-Leader of the Greens Robert Habeck is Scholz’s Vice-Chancellor, who heads the revamped Ministry of Economy and Climate. The No. 3 government official is Christian Lindner, finance minister and Free Democratic leader, who has pushed the coalition to reject tax increases.
“It will not be easy to keep three different parties together,” Schroeder, who led Germany from 1998 to 2005 as the country’s last center-left chancellor, told Phoenix TV. “But I think Olaf Scholz will have the patience, but also the determination, to deal with it.”
The new government portrays itself as a departure in style and content from the “grand coalition” of Germany’s traditional big parties, which Merkel has led for all but her four years in office, with Social Democrats as junior partners.
In these tense alliances, partners sometimes seemed preoccupied with blocking each other’s plans. Merkel’s last term was accompanied by frequent feuds, including within her center-right bloc, the Union, until a pandemic broke out. She is leaving with a legacy largely defined by her acknowledged knack for dealing with a series of crises rather than any grand visions of Germany.
Agreement on the formation of a coalition government between the three parties, which had significant differences before the elections, was reached relatively quickly and in unexpected harmony. This will now be tested by the reality of government; Scholz acknowledged that fighting the pandemic “will take all our strength and energy.”
Last week, German federal and state leaders announced tough new restrictions that mainly target unvaccinated people. In the longer term, parliament will consider the overall mandate for vaccines. Germany’s daily COVID-19 infections soared to record levels this fall, although they may now stabilize and hospitals are feeling stressed.
“People hope that you… show leadership and take the right action,” Steinmeier told the new cabinet. “It’s important not to listen to the loudest noises, but to ensure that the pandemic does not hold us in its hands for another year and that social life is taken for granted again.”