SOCIAL Democrat Olaf Scholz was on Wednesday sworn in as Germany’s ninth post-World War II chancellor, ending 16 years of conservative rule under Angela Merkel and paving the way for a pro-European coalition government which has vowed to boost green investment.
“It will be a new beginning for our country. In any case I will do everything to work towards that,” the 63-year-old said as he took his oath of office in an official handover ceremony in the Berlin parliament.
Scholz was elected chancellor after a secret ballot in which he won 395 out of 707 German lawmaker’s votes.
Scholz will lead Germany’s first federal “traffic light” coalition, made up of the SPD, the ecologist Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and named for the parties’ colours.
As Germany’s new chancellor, Scholz will lead Europe’s largest economy which is currently facing a brutal fourth wave of coronavirus infections.
The SPD-Greens-FDP coalition sealed a pact, titled “Dare for More Progress” last month that pledged “a new beginning for Germany”.
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.
“I know you are starting work highly motivated,” Merkel told Scholz at her chancellery in Berlin, adding: “take this office and work in the best interest of our country — that is my wish.”
Welcoming Scholz’s election, French President Emmanuel Macron congratulated the new chancellor and promised to work with his German counterpart.
“We will write the next chapter together. For the French, for the Germans, for the Europeans,” said Macron in a tweet in French and German. He also thanked Merkel for “never forgetting the lessons of history, for doing so much for us, with us, to move Europe forwards”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen congratulated Scholz and said she looked forward to working with him for a stronger EU.
“Congratulations, dear Olaf Scholz on your election and appointment as federal chancellor. I wish you a good start and look forward to further trusting cooperation for a strong Europe,” she tweeted in her native German.
The EU chief is a member of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat party and served in her cabinet before moving to Brussels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also reacted to the appointment, calling for “constructive” ties with Scholz.
“We are counting on continuity, on the fact that constructive relations will develop between the president and the new chancellor, that the German side will continue to proceed from the understanding that there is no alternative to dialogue to resolve the most difficult differences,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Germany’s incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has pledged a tougher line with authoritarian states such as Russia and China after the business-driven pragmatism of the Merkel years.
Baerbock, the Greens co-leader, 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,” Scholz, who describes himself as a “feminist”, said this week.
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 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,” Scholz told reporters Tuesday, flanked by his designated finance and economy ministers, Christian Lindner and Robert Habeck.
More than 103,000 people have died with coronavirus in Germany while new infections have surged since the weather turned cold, filling intensive care units to the breaking point.
Scholz has thrown his weight behind Germany following Austria in making jabs mandatory to get the pandemic under control, 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, 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, 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 Scholz.
Her successor has however pledged to tackle the widening gap between rich and poor under Merkel.
The independent Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) 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 toward climate protection and renewable energy, even as the government pledges to return to a no-new-debt rule by 2023.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)