Michael Kappeler / Pool / AP
HAMBURG, Germany – The pounding typically begins at 8 a.m. sharp and continues throughout the day, its pulse echoing past the sparkling, refurbished buildings and canals of this city’s harbor district. It is the heart of Hamburg.
Over the past 10 years, this has been the soundtrack of the transformation of Germany’s largest port from a dilapidated warehouse to a thriving cultural center filled with lofts, hotels and footpaths and capped with a huge Philharmonic Hall, a glass goliath whose roof is shaped like undulating ocean waves.
This is the city where Olaf Scholz, 63, grew up and was mayor from 2011 to 2018. Supporters blame Scholz, of the center-left Social Democratic Party, for leading the city-building frenzy. Now German Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor, he presents himself in polls and national debates as the favorite to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in the German elections on September 26.
“We had very big housing problems”, explains Matthias Bartke, Social Democratic MP representing Hamburg-Altona, “and in a very few years it has made Hamburg one of the flagship cities of the continent”.
That’s because Scholz came up with a plan, says Bartke, and meticulously executed it. He thinks Scholz would do the same as the German Chancellor.
“Merkel is very good at solving crises when there is a crisis,” he said of the country’s leader for 16 years. “There are very few people who can handle it better. But she has no idea what the future is like. And Schulz has a very, very clear plan for how things should develop and look like.”
Scholz’s plan begins with the country’s minimum wage. He promises to immediately raise it from 9.60 euros to 12 euros an hour, the equivalent of about 14 dollars an hour – a pay rise for 10 million lowest-paid German citizens. It also aims to create more housing and make the economy greener.
But Scholz’s two main rivals for chancellor have made similar promises. Observers believe the difference is that Scholz has decades of experience at all levels of government, as well as a corresponding Rolodex. “He’s sort of the identical twin of Joe Biden,” says Heinrich Wefing, political bureau editor of one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Die zeit.
He calls Scholz a less talkative and gregarious version of Biden. “They are both men of the device,” Wefing said. “They’re 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’s what it is. he does the best. “
Wefing agrees with Bartke that Scholz, as mayor of Hamburg, was able to execute his plan to provide more housing for residents of the city. But the publisher says Scholz’s tenure also revealed flaws in its direction. In 2017, when Hamburg was due to host the Group of 20 summit, Scholz assured Merkel it would be a safe and secure event. However, the protests turned into riots that left hundreds injured and more than a dozen arson attacks. Bartke and Wefing both say that 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 the Merkel government; the Social Democrats are a co-governing junior partner with Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party.
During the coronavirus pandemic, he helped keep the economy afloat with a stimulus package that kept workers in their jobs thanks to the country’s leave program, called kurzarbeit. Wefing says Scholz’s steady hand during the pandemic has convinced voters that he is chancellor’s material. And the mistakes of his opponents convinced voters that they are not.
In July, during a speech by the German President mourning flood victims, Merkel’s party candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet was caught on camera laughing in the background. He apologized, but the blunder contributed to already plummeting popularity among voters.
Scholz’s other main opponent, Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party, benefited from a fair number of polls in the spring, but as voters examined her inexperience in government, they gradually lost interest.
That left Scholz – a man who MP Bartke says is the closest candidate to Merkel in terms of personality. “I think the people are unhappy about losing Angela Merkel because for 16 years she was a symbol of stability,” he says, a stability he think voters now see in Scholz’s leadership.
His campaign exploited this resemblance: one of Scholz campaign posters uses the German feminine form of the word “chancellor” to proclaim, ironic, Er kann Kanzlerin, or “He has what it takes to be Madam Chancellor.”
Returning to the port of Hamburg, tourists from all over Germany crowd the foot of the imposing glass philharmonic hall, a project that was almost scrapped before Scholz, as mayor, renegotiated the contract, continuing his construction.
When NPR asked tourists which party they would vote for, many said they were not interested in the election. Of those who were, preferences ran the gamut, from left Die Linke party to the libertarian Liberal Democratic Party. But they all shared one thing in common: they all said Scholz would make a good chancellor.
Christoph Homes, a security guard in a town on the border with the Netherlands, has said he will vote for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, but expects Scholz to win. “He’s been in the game from the start and has served in pretty much every office,” Homes said, “so I think Scholz would be a good leader. It’s his party that I don’t like, and I don’t follow. not sure they ‘I would do anything. But then again, it’s just not my party. “
Esme Nicholson has contributed to this story from Hamburg.