IF GERMANS VOTED for their chancellor directly, Olaf Scholz would be the favourite to succeed Angela Merkel after elections on September 26th. The candidate of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is more than twice as popular as either of his main rivals, Armin Laschet, of Mrs Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and Annalena Baerbock, of the Greens (see chart). Unfortunately for Mr Scholz, that is not how Germany picks its leader. But his chances of entering the chancellery are rising. On August 24th Forsa, another pollster, put the SPD just ahead of the conservatives and the Greens, for the first time in 15 years. It is an impressive rise for Mr Scholz, who in the early 2000s was dubbed “Scholz-o-mat” for his robotic demeanour. Who is Olaf Scholz, and what kind of Germany does he want to lead?

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As well as being the SPD’s candidate, Mr Scholz is Germany’s finance minister, a job he has held since 2018. (His party is in coalition with Mrs Merkel’s conservatives.) Until the covid-19 pandemic he had a reputation for fiscal caution, but he was instrumental in pushing through the EU’s €750bn ($886bn) recovery plan and a stimulus package at home worth €130bn. His largesse has limits, however. He leans less to the left than many members of his party, and wants Germany to return to the “debt brake” in 2023, which imposes strict limits on federal and state government spending.

Before he held the national purse strings he was the mayor of Hamburg, the Hanseatic city where he grew up. Mr Scholz’s traits are those typically associated with his home city’s burghers: pragmatic, plain-spoken (“I’m liberal, but not stupid,” he once said on law and order) and Protestant (no alcohol was served at his leaving party at Hamburg’s city hall, it being a work day). True to form, he is not letting frothy polls go to his head. When he appeared in Berlin on August 16th as part of his Zukunftsgespräch (“future talks”) campaign, he would not be drawn on the election, insisting that it will be decided on September 26th and not before.

What does he want for Germany? He has promised to build more houses “to stop the excessive rise of rents,” a persistent worry. He also pledges stronger climate protections and to turn Germany into a leading exporter of green-energy technology. His biggest priority, however, would be to increase the minimum wage from €9.60 an hour to €12. Mr Scholz boasts that Germany owes the introduction of a nationwide statutory minimum wage in 2015 to the SPD’s place in government. The CDU/CSU, for their part, insist that wage negotiations should be left to employees and their bosses.

Mr Scholz may be riding high in the polls, but Germany’s fragmented electorate makes the result of the election tricky to predict. After eight years together over two parliaments, neither the CDU/CSU nor (especially) the SPD are keen to revive their current “grand coalition”. More probable is that one of them joins with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats to govern. A few weeks ago, Mr Scholz’s SPD looked likely to be sent back into opposition. Now it is a much tighter call.

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All our stories relating to Germany’s election, including our forecast, can be found on our German election hub.