Meet Olaf Scholz, the 30-something who could become Germany’s next chancellor

Germany’s next chancellor could be 32-year-old Olaf Scholz, a longtime politician who’s just held one of the toughest jobs in his own country: cutting back the spending at his industrial-based department as finance minister.

Scholz becomes one of Germany’s youngest-ever serving ministers on Saturday after winning a popularity contest of “grand coalition” rivals who nominated him as their preferred candidate for chancellor. His future predecessor, Christian Democrats chancellor Angela Merkel, said her former cabinet colleague was a “practical, good-tempered, intelligent, sober-witted, conservative guy.”

Scholz, whose ability to speak German quickly and effectively helped him win the job of Peter Altmaier, should be an easy fit for his home nation. The West German native grew up in his parents’ luxury automobile dealership in Essen, then worked in his father’s physics office before entering politics and eventually becoming finance minister.

In a decades-long political career — spanning a super-sized section of his country’s economic landscape — he’s become one of Germany’s most well-known policymakers.

Not only is he a moderate who has allied himself with the center-left Social Democrats, but he has also been endorsed by influential Americans, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who said the former finance minister is a “common-sense economist.” Reich said that Scholz’s willingness to negotiate is an asset in German politics.

Scholz’s next challenge will be to coordinate Germany’s response to Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom. After such a tumultuous, contentious election season, where voters in a national election chose Merkel’s conservative party instead of the Social Democrats, the 63-year-old German chancellor opted for new leadership.

After winning a fourth term, Merkel saw her poll numbers plummet to historic lows and she struggled to maintain the three-party coalition with the Social Democrats. As the term-limited German chancellor vacates the chancellery, the Social Democrats are searching for a replacement that would still draw enough support from the left.

While Scholz’s appointment as finance minister stirred some positive reactions from Germans, many of the changes he made when he took the office a few years ago were greeted with a divisive reception.

One of Scholz’s initiatives was to abolish the Bonn Plan, which created billions of euros worth of social security benefits. The policy was made popular by its proponents as something that kept workers afloat as Germany soared on a wave of economic growth after World War II. But critics said it was bloated and was a costly waste.

“The Bonn Plan was not ever about keeping wages low, but about liberalizing,” said Tommaso Vaioli, an economist and senior policy adviser at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Vaioli said Scholz’s elimination of the program has been a “drag on competitiveness,” making German companies less competitive in global markets.

Vaioli’s comments were among those that frustrated Scholz, who argued in an interview with Der Spiegel that the loss of jobs on the domestic front is what motivated him to reform the Bonn Plan.

“I come from a region that has suffered too much from jobs being exported elsewhere,” he said.

If Scholz is on the right track in filling new positions in Merkel’s administration, he should be able to find common ground with members of the Social Democrats.

Altmaier, who became deputy chancellor in Scholz’s cabinet after the two men were appointed last year, said he has already told members of his party that Scholz will “strengthen unity and find new common goals.”

Altmaier told reporters he expected a smooth transition — adding that the biggest change that will take place will likely be the cancellation of the popular young Turks initiative that allowed young politicians to parlay their political ideas into posts in the government.

While Altmaier remained evasive on who his potential successor will be in the post of chancellor, one hopeful is 38-year-old Christian Democrat Sauerland who was nominated by a joint group of conservatives and Social Democrats. “I am prepared to be the chancellor of this grand coalition,” Sauerland told German broadcaster ZDF.

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