Tried and tested or comeback king: Two men after Angela Merkel's job

The race to replace Angela Merkel has boiled down to a competition between Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats and Armin Laschet of Merkel's CDU-CSU conservative alliance.
Campaign posters of Armin Laschet (L) and Olaf Scholz (Photo | AP)
Campaign posters of Armin Laschet (L) and Olaf Scholz (Photo | AP)

BERLIN: The frontrunner to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor is an experienced finance minister, but his opponent has the reputation of being a comeback king.

The race to replace Merkel has boiled down to a competition between Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats and Armin Laschet of Merkel's CDU-CSU conservative alliance.

Here's a look at the two main pretenders to Merkel's throne.

Safe pair of hands

As finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel, Scholz is one of Germany's most influential politicians with a reputation for being meticulous, confident and fiercely ambitious.

He enjoys a close relationship with Merkel and has even sought to position himself as the true Merkel continuity candidate, appearing on the cover of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung magazine adopting her famous "rhombus" hand gesture.

Nicknamed the "Scholzomat" for his robotic speeches, Scholz has hardly stood out for his charisma in the run-up to the election and has admitted himself that he is "not someone who is particularly emotional in politics".

But the 63-year-old has also benefited from not making any embarrassing mistakes on the campaign trail.

When he was attacked by Laschet during a TV debate over police searches carried out at the finance ministry, Scholz kept his cool, accused Laschet of "twisting the facts", and was promptly voted the winner of the debate.

Born in the northern city of Osnabrueck, Scholz trained as a lawyer and specialised in labour issues before being elected to the national parliament in 1998. He married fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst that same year.

He was the mayor of Hamburg for many years, overseeing the development of the wildly expensive but cherished Elbphilharmonie concert hall.

But generally speaking, he is seen as fiscally conservative and a staunch defender of Germany's famed budget discipline — an approach that has at times left him marginalised within his own workers' party.

Scholz was overlooked in a leadership vote in 2019 in favour of two relatively unknown left-wingers but has got behind the SPD's flagship policies in the election campaign, backing a planned wealth tax and an increase in the minimum wage.

Comeback king?

Laschet's election campaign has been marred by gaffes, but the affable Rhinelander has a reputation for endurance and what Der Spiegel magazine has described as an ability to "sit out" his opponents -- a talent that may yet land him Germany's top job.

The CDU chief won the conservatives' nomination to be chancellor candidate after a drawn-out battle with the more popular Markus Soeder of the CSU, the CDU's Bavarian sister party.

Asked in a recent TV interview whether he thought he was often underestimated, Laschet replied that "many have certainly miscalculated".

Laschet was born in Aachen, the spa city in western Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands where his father fed the family digging for coal.

"When you're down in the mine, it doesn't matter where your colleague comes from, what his religion is or what he looks like. What is important is, can you rely on him," he told party colleagues earlier this year.

Laschet, 60, has a reputation for pragmatism and the ability to unify, famously standing by Merkel during the fallout from Germany's 2015 refugee influx.

"Polarising is easy -- anyone can do it," he told a party conference in January.

"We have to speak plainly, but not polarise. We have to be able to integrate. Keeping a society together and bringing it together, that is hard work."

Laschet's hero is Charlemagne, the king of the Franks credited with uniting Europe whose empire was based in Aachen, and his family has even said they are direct descendants.

The father-of-three was elected to the Bundestag German parliament in 1994 and to the European Parliament in 1999 and has been the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017.

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