Mayor Olaf Scholz has been setting the course in Hamburg for 99 days on Tuesday. No one bothers him. He is the political professional who knows everything better.
He thinks and he steers: for Olaf Scholz, not even the unwritten laws of his party apply. Picture: dpa
Olaf Scholz says what he thinks. And believes what he says. And he does what he says. So he moves in a circle, which for him is the perfect political form. The form in which people should put their crosses. Because in four years he wants to be re-elected. For doing what he announced and not doing what he didn’t promise. For being reliable. That’s how Olaf Scholz sees it.
In the Hamburg SPD, opinion is formed from the top down, as others see it. "Whoever orders leadership from me must know that they will get it," Scholz announced a year and a half ago when he became Hamburg party chairman. He meant it, as is now clear to everyone in the SPD. After almost a decade in opposition, he has brought Hamburg’s once-glorious Social Democracy back to power, and immediately with an absolute majority. Some in the party therefore call their mayor "St. Olaf" in a mixture of reverence and irony.
Because Olaf Scholz is sacrosanct. And as long as he doesn’t make any serious mistakes, he will remain untouchable. His only opponent – at the moment, at least – is himself. Scholz is convinced that he can do it better than the many amateurs and part-time politicians who cavort in the city-state on the Elbe. Scholz is a political professional who plays in a different league than everyone else here in Hamburg. He really believes that.
Born in Osnabruck, Germany, he is 53 and has lived in Hamburg for 50 years. He is married to SPD Member of Parliament Britta Ernst.
The lawyer was federal chairman of the Jusos from 1982 to 1988, district leader in Hamburg-Altona from 1994 to 2000, and chairman of the SPD in Hamburg from 2000 to 2004 and since 2009. From May to October 2001, he was Senator of the Interior.
Member of the Bundestag Scholz was a member of the Bundestag from 1998 to 2001 and from 2002 to 2011.
SPD Secretary General was Scholz from 2002 to 2004, then executive director of the Bundestag parliamentary group and federal labor minister from 2007 to 2009.
Since 2009 he has been deputy federal chairman of the SPD.
Nothing, really nothing, has surprised him since he became head of government in Hamburg on March 7. That’s what he says, and that’s what he means. And when Scholz speaks today, Tuesday, his 53rd birthday, he will mean it. As he takes stock of his first 99 days before the state press conference at City Hall on his 50th birthday, he will deliver three messages: I have prepared myself well for office, I am implementing everything I announced, and I want to do so well that I will be re-elected.
Olaf Scholz – not the Hamburg SPD – won the parliamentary elections in February with the simple promise of wanting to "govern well in terms of craftsmanship." He promised clarity, trust and responsibility, and that was enough. For Scholz had recognized and exploited the political mood in Hamburg, the mood of change away from the CDU. That speaks for his political instinct.
Like a general staff, he planned his way to power. The few confidants he initiated and whose advice he listened to are eloquently silent about the details. Because if you want to mess with Scholz, all it takes is one disloyalty. The man rarely forgives, and he never forgets.
Some, however, complain that they never know exactly what he is thinking. Scholz invites whoever and whenever he wants to talk. Then he listens attentively to his counterpart and looks him steadfastly in the eye for as long as he talks. After that, Scholz says "thank you," and the audience is over. No praise, no criticism, no feedback: Not all comrades can handle this well – even psychologically. Yet this is still the moderate manifestation of his leadership style. It gets uncomfortable when he replies, "Thank you. But I would wish that …" This is how Scholz expresses himself when he gives someone one last chance.
"Olaf thinks, Olaf steers and we row," says a prominent comrade, without seeming unhappy. The course was set at a "leadership conference" in December 2010, whose 39 invitees were selected by Scholz himself. Not everyone who was allowed to be there made a career; but those who weren’t didn’t become anything in any case.
The most important guideline established there was: ten years of "iron-fisted" budget consolidation. "That’s my decision, and I’m sticking to it," Scholz says today: "We have to control the budget through spending, not through revenue." That’s why he’s making continuous savings, and when tax revenues are bubbling up, as they are at the moment, it’s not wishes that are fulfilled, but debts that are reduced. That’s why he sticks to his no to the light rail system, that’s why he got into it with the civil servants over the Christmas bonus, that’s why he shrugs off the distribution battle with the universities. "You have to be able to put up with that," Scholz says in these cases.
He is so unassailable that not even unwritten laws apply to him. In the past, Hamburg SPD party leaders had to give up their office when they became senators; no state party leader ever became mayor. Until 2001, the maxim was the "iron triangle" of mayor, party leader and parliamentary group chairman.
Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, remains party chairman, and no one questions that. Some consider a personnel debate to be beside the point, others simply say that there can only be "one and only one" at the moment.
It is Scholz who has almost single-handedly led Hamburg’s SPD back to the sunny side of the city-state. He has breathed a new self-confidence into the party that, for some, is reminiscent of the old arrogance of power for which it was hounded out of office ten years ago.
Olaf Scholz, it seems, is at the height of his power. He can hardly go much higher. From the summit, however, all roads lead downhill.