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Germany's new chancellor has some huge tasks ahead of him


After 16 years of Angela Merkel's leadership, Germany has a new chancellor. Olaf Scholz was sworn in today in a ceremony in front of the country's parliament. NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz brings us this profile of Scholz and the challenges he'll face as Germany's new leader.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Replacing Angela Merkel was not easy for Germans. For the past year, the country seemed in endless debate who would best represent a way forward from a leader whose calm, stable approach to crisis after crisis came to define how to lead effectively. In the end, they settled on the familiar.

ANSGAR SIEMENS: (Through interpreter) Essentially, Scholz is a pretty boring guy.

SCHMITZ: Ansgar Siemens is a reporter who has covered Olaf Scholz for years.

SIEMENS: (Through interpreter) He is somewhat cool, somewhat distinguished, with a distant, unapproachable personality.

SCHMITZ: In Germany, this is a compliment, and it's exactly what Germans wanted in their next leader. Last week, after Angela Merkel's military sendoff included handpicked music that summed up her character, Siemens' paper, Der Spiegel, asked its readers to guess which songs would suit Olaf Scholz.


STYX: (Singing) Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

SCHMITZ: Styx's "Mr. Roboto" was among their top choices.


STYX: (Singing) You're wondering who I am. Secret, secret - I've got a secret. Machine or mannequin. Secret, secret - I've got a secret.

SCHMITZ: And it's Scholz's robotic, methodic approach to solving society's problems that has paved his way to chancellor. For seven years as the mayor of Hamburg, Germany's largest port city, Scholz helped transform a rundown harbor district into a thriving cultural center. As labor minister, he beefed up the Kurzarbeit program, where the state makes up for lost wages when a worker is laid off. And then as finance minister, he used that very program to keep Germany's economy afloat. Through it all, he earned the nickname Scholzomat for his android-like demeanor and technocratic approach to governance, says Siemens.

SIEMENS: (Through interpreter) He likes to discuss and debate, but then he acts unilaterally. He's a strong leader who can get things done.

SCHMITZ: And the state of affairs in Germany shows that the country could use some strong, decisive leadership, says economist Marcel Fratzscher.

MARCEL FRATZSCHER: We are in the midst of a very deep crisis, the pandemic, which now, with the fourth wave, is hitting Germany very, very hard.

SCHMITZ: Scholz has already announced new rules restricting access for unvaccinated Germans and vows mandatory vaccines for all Germans early next year. But Fratzscher says as far as challenges go for Scholz, the pandemic is just the beginning.

FRATZSCHER: And at the same time, Germany has to tackle two huge, long-run challenges for climate protection and the digital transformation of the economy. So it's this double challenge.

SCHMITZ: Schulz's new government vows to phase out coal burning by the end of the decade, and it aims to modernize the country's notorious bureaucracy from one mired in paperwork to one where people can get things done over their cell phones. But before his government can tackle these big topics, there's an even more important challenge for Scholz's new three-party coalition government, says Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: The bigger challenge is, of course, you know, managing the coalition. He has to make sure that he can keep sort of the young revolutionaries in check within his own party and make sure that this coalition of seemingly strange bedfellows stick together for the long haul to make sure that these goals are met in terms of modernizing Germany.

SCHMITZ: Scholz's Social Democrats are governing alongside the climate change-focused Greens and the business friendly Free Democrats, and each of these partners has its own agenda. Getting all of them on the same page fast will be crucial for Scholz, not only for the sake of Germany, but for the sake of the European Union, says David-Wilp. She says the looming threat of Russia on the Ukrainian border is just one of many thorny international crises that Scholz will have to quickly weigh in on.

DAVID-WILP: But it's going to have to be sort of the first mover on these challenges because France is going to be very busy as it gets into its election cycle next year, and the U.K. is out of the European Union. So it ends up being in Germany's lap yet again to be in the leadership position within the EU.

SCHMITZ: But if Olaf Scholz's background is any indication, taking on a leadership position is something that comes naturally to him. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.