Who is Olaf Scholz? Meet Germany's new chancellor and coalition government Social Democratic politician Olaf Scholz takes over from center-right Angela Merkel as chancellor to lead a coalition of three different parties in government.

What you need to know about Germany's new chancellor and coalition government

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Today, Germany's Angela Merkel formally ends her 16-year run as chancellor. Olaf Scholz takes charge of the most powerful country in Europe, which is also the biggest economy in Europe, and it's a vital U.S. ally. NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now. Hey there, Rob.


INSKEEP: Olaf Scholz is going to be a new name to a lot of Americans. So who is he, and how does he fit into German politics?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. Olaf Scholz is a career politician for the center-left Social Democratic Party. And for decades, he's held a wide range of positions in government. He's been a member of parliament. He was a popular mayor of the port city of Hamburg. He's been labor minister and finance minister in coalition governments under conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. He's very much a known quantity who has a deep understanding of the political process and how to get things done. And because of that, he's often compared to President Joe Biden. Germans have chosen him and his party because, to them, he governs a lot like Merkel. He's a calm, steady hand in a crisis. He's always striving for compromise.

But there are a few differences between him and Merkel. I spoke to Marcel Fratzscher about this. He's the president for the German Institute for Economic Research, and he's advising the incoming government. Fratzscher points out that unlike Merkel, who grew up in former East Germany, Scholz grew up in U.S.-facing West Germany and has a slightly different worldview. Here's what he said.

MARCEL FRATZSCHER: I think Olaf Scholz has a stronger focus on transatlantic relationship with the U.S. I think he is more comfortable with a strong, integrated Europe.

SCHMITZ: And Fratzscher thinks this means that under a Scholz-led government, Germany will be more aligned with the U.S. on an international stage and will seek a more assertive, unified European Union. And when you take a look at Scholz's cabinet, it's clear we're going to see some changes in how Germany presents itself to the world and on its path domestically.

INSKEEP: Well, what are some of those changes?

SCHMITZ: Well, the biggest challenge that they're facing, of course, is the pandemic. Germany's infection rate is at an all-time high, and there was a lot of talk about who Scholz would choose as the country's next health minister. Scholz chose Karl Lauterbach. He's an epidemiologist and a politician who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Merkel's government and how it has handled the pandemic. Lauterbach has always felt that the government needed to be stricter in its guidelines. He advocates mandatory vaccinations, and he has no patience at all for those who refuse to get vaccinated. He is a polarizing figure in a country where 30% of Germans are unvaccinated. But despite the potential political fallout of choosing him as health minister, Scholz went ahead and did it anyway. And I think that tells us that Scholz wants an outspoken leader to be managing this pandemic, not someone who was a politically safe choice.

Another interesting fact about this new cabinet is that all the ministries in charge of both domestic and international security - that is the foreign minister, the interior minister and the defense minister - for the first time in Germany's history, they're all women. In fact, half of Scholz's cabinet is made up of women.

INSKEEP: Interesting point. That said, Rob, people who are following this will know that this is a coalition government, that Europe's most powerful country is supposed to be ruled by a coalition - three different political parties this time, all of them with slightly different worldviews. Is that going to be a problem?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's going to be a big challenge for Scholz. And managing, you know, these political differences between his own Social Democratic Party, the environmentally conscious Greens and the libertarian Free Democrats is going to be tough. But there are, I think, far greater challenges that they face as a coalition government. And the big one will be to sort of transform Germany's economy to a greener, more digitized version of its current state and doing this without raising taxes, which is a big concern of the new finance minister, whose goal will be to make sure Germany doesn't take on any new debt. But it'll be crucial for this new government to not only prove to everyone that they can govern together, but to make Germany's economy a more competitive one whose goal is not only to improve people's lives, but to ensure that in doing so, it is doing as much as it can to lessen Germany's impact on the health of the planet. It's going to be a big job.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks so much. Always appreciate your insights.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Berlin.

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