Olaf Scholz has some big shoes to fill.
The German Finance Minister will be sworn in as German chancellor next month, barring any 11th-hour setbacks – weeks after he led his Social Democratic Party (SPD) to a narrow victory in September’s parliamentary elections.
Under the agreement announced in Berlin on Wednesday, Scholz’s center-left party will head a three-party coalition with partners the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats. It follows two months of negotiations to form a new government.
His ascension to the helm of that government will finally end the 16-year Angela Merkel era. Merkel did not contest the September vote, after announcing her decision to step down.
Scholz has positioned himself as a pragmatist and a safe pair of hands. In fact his political style is not dissimilar to that of Merkel – the two are alike in many ways, despite hailing from rival parties.
“He comes across as calm, measured, steady,” said Corinna Hoerst, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels.
Scholz on Friday told reporters his “traffic light government” is here, referring to the red, yellow and green colors of the respective parties. “We want to be daring when it comes to climate and industry,” he said.
The deal – which sets out the government’s vision for its four-year term – will now go to the wider party members for consideration, where it is expected to be approved.
Hoerst said that as a moderate, Scholz is an outlier within his party. “The SPD leadership are mostly leftist leaning and initially didn’t support him. So we don’t know yet who he will gather around him and who will influence his leadership style,” she added.
Hoerst’s colleague and the deputy director of GMF’s Berlin office, Sudha David-Wilp, said this centrism is another trait Scholz shares with Merkel.
“She always governed from the center and I think he will also try to do that if he does become chancellor, but it will also depend of course on what coalition parties demand,” she said.
The 63-year-old – a life-long member of the SPD – was born in what was then West Germany, a detail that sets him apart from Merkel, who grew up in East Germany.
Scholz served as the Labor and Social Affairs minister in Merkel’s first coalition government in the late 2000s. In 2011 he was elected mayor of Hamburg, a position he held – with high levels of support – until 2018.
Since then, he has served as the vice-chancellor and finance minister in Merkel’s grand coalition government, a powerful position in German national politics.
His profile rose even further when he oversaw Germany’s generous coronavirus compensation programs for businesses, employees and those who lost income because they had to quarantine during the pandemic.
“He has been [Merkel’s] right hand man when it comes to leading the country over the past four years … he [played] second fiddle to Merkel, but he has tremendous power within the German government, and also in Europe [where he] represents Germany when it comes to Euro policies,” David-Wilp said.
Unlike Merkel, who has become a household name across the world during her long tenure, Scholz is not well known abroad – beyond Brussels’ political circles.
Speaking in September he said forming a stronger and more sovereign European Union, as well as working on the good relationship between Germany and the United States, would be his key foreign policy goals if he does become chancellor.
He added that as the world “becomes more dangerous,” democratic countries must cooperate. “It is important that we work together, even if we do have conflict in one or the other question,” he said.
Scholz has had his share of political problems in the past.
As mayor of Hamburg, he was criticized for his mishandling of violent protests that unfolded during a G20 meeting his city hosted in 2017.
Hamburg descended into chaos during the summit, and hundreds of police officers were injured in clashes with protesters. Scholz had underplayed the potential risk from demonstrations, and so was blamed for the city’s lack of preparation.
The jury is still out on what kind of chancellor Scholz might be, but few expect a radical change at the top of German politics.
“It will be a shift because there is no longer Merkel,” Hoerst said, before adding: “I doubt it will be big.”
CNN’s Rob Picheta, Frederik Pleitgen, Sugam Pokharel, Jennifer Deaton and Helen Regan contributed reporting.