Chancellor Scholz takes reins from Merkel for new German era

Newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz receives flowers during a session of the Bundestag in Berlin on Dec 8, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (AFP) - Social Democrat Olaf Scholz was sworn in as Germany's ninth post-war chancellor on Wednesday (Dec 8), succeeding Angela Merkel as her 16 years in power came to an end.

Mr Scholz, 63, took the oath of office in the chamber of the Bundestag lower house of parliament from speaker Baerbel Bas, after his election by MPs with 395 out of 707 votes cast.

Mr Scholz leads the new centre-left-led coalition at the wheel of Europe's top economy.

Mr Scholz has pledged broad "continuity" with the popular Dr Merkel while making Germany greener and fairer.

Asked by speaker Bas whether he accepted the election, a beaming Mr Scholz nodded and then received bouquets of flowers from MPs to congratulate him.

The finance minister under Dr Merkel led his Social Democrats to victory in the Sept 26 election - an outcome considered unthinkable at the start of the year given the party's then festering divisions and anaemic support.

Mr Scholz who turned emulating Dr Merkel in style and substance into a winning strategy, has now cobbled together Germany's first national "traffic light" coalition with the ecologist Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, nicknamed after the parties' colours.

Their four-year pact sealed late last month is called Dare for More Progress, a hat tip to Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt's 1969 historic pledge to Dare for More Democracy.

"We have a chance for a new beginning for Germany," Mr Scholz told his party at the weekend as it gave its blessing to the coalition agreement with 99-per cent support.

The alliance aims to slash carbon emissions, overhaul decrepit digital infrastructure, modernise citizenship laws, lift the minimum wage and have Germany join a handful of countries worldwide in legalising marijuana.

Gender Balanced

The incoming foreign minister, Ms Annalena Baerbock, has also pledged a tougher line with authoritarian states such as Russia and China after the business-driven pragmatism of the Merkel years.

Greens co-leader Baerbock is one of eight women in Germany's first gender-balanced Cabinet.

"That corresponds to the society we live in - half of the power belongs to women," Mr Scholz, who describes himself as a feminist, said this week.

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Mr Scholz and his team promise stability just as France braces for a bitterly fought presidential election next year and Europe grapples with the enduring aftershocks of Brexit.

However a vicious fourth Covid-19 wave has already put the incoming coalition to the test. "We have to make a fresh start while facing down the corona pandemic - those are the circumstances the new government is up against," Mr Scholz told reporters Tuesday, flanked by his designated finance and economy ministers, Mr Christian Lindner and Mr Robert Habeck.

More than 103,000 people have died with the coronavirus in Germany while new infections have surged since the weather turned cold, filling intensive care units to the breaking point.

Mr Scholz has thrown his weight behind making vaccines mandatory to get the pandemic under control, as Austria has done, as experts say the worst is still to come for the country's struggling clinics.

He aims to have Parliament vote on the issue before the year is out with a view to implementing the law in February or March.

Merkel 'Variant'

Dr Merkel, 67, Germany's first woman chancellor, is retiring from politics after four consecutive terms, the first post-war leader to step aside of her own accord.

She leaves big shoes to fill, with large majorities of Germans approving of her leadership, even if her own party, the conservative Christian Democrats, often bridled against her moderate course.

"For 16 years, Angela Merkel defined the political centre," columnist Nikolas Blome said. "If she were running again, she would win a fifth term," he added, saying it was nevertheless time for new blood.

Despite being from a rival party, Mr Scholz tapped into that well of popular support in his bid to succeed her.

The left-leaning daily Tageszeitung recently joked about the similarities between the two politicians on its front page, with the pandemic-era headline Merkel Variant Prevails and a picture of a grinning Mr Scholz.

Her successor has however pledged to tackle the widening gap between rich and poor under Dr Merkel.

The independent Centre for European Economic Research said in an analysis of the coalition pact that lower-income Germans and parents stood to gain the most from its policy roadmap.

Meanwhile, Greens supporters are banking on billions flowing towards climate protection and renewable energy, even as the government pledges to return to a no-new-debt rule by 2023.

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