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Scholz Succeeds Merkel        12/08 06:41

   

   BERLIN (AP) -- Olaf Scholz became Germany's ninth post-World War II 
chancellor Wednesday, opening a new era for the European Union's most populous 
nation and largest economy after Angela Merkel's 16-year tenure.

   Scholz's government takes office with high hopes of modernizing Germany and 
combating climate change but faces the immediate challenge of handling the 
country's toughest phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic.

   Lawmakers voted by 395-303 to elect Scholz, with six abstentions -- a 
comfortable majority, though short of the 416 seats his three-party coalition 
holds in the 736-seat lower house of parliament. That's not unusual when 
chancellors are elected, and some lawmakers were out sick.

   Scholz exchanged fist bumps with lawmakers from across the political 
spectrum before German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier formally appointed him 
as chancellor. He was due to be sworn in by the speaker of parliament later 
Wednesday.

   Merkel, who is no longer a member of parliament, looked on from the 
spectators' gallery as parliament voted. Lawmakers gave her a standing ovation 
as the session started.

   Scholz, 63, Germany's vice chancellor and finance minister since 2018, 
brings a wealth of experience and discipline to an untried coalition of his 
center-left Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business 
Free Democrats. The three parties are portraying the combination of former 
rivals as a progressive alliance that will bring new energy to the country 
after Merkel's near-record time in office.

   "We are venturing a new departure, one that takes up the major challenges of 
this decade and well beyond that," Scholz said Tuesday. If the parties succeed, 
he added, "that is a mandate to be reelected together at the next election."

   The new government aims to step up efforts against climate change by 
expanding the use of renewable energy and bringing Germany's exit from 
coal-fired power forward from 2038, "ideally" to 2030. It also wants to do more 
to modernize the country, including improving its notoriously poor cellphone 
and internet networks.

   It also plans more liberal social policies, including legalizing the sale of 
cannabis for recreational purposes and easing the path to German citizenship 
while pledging greater efforts to deport immigrants who don't win asylum. The 
coalition partners want to lower the voting age in national elections from 18 
to 16.

   The government also plans to increase Germany's minimum wage to 12 euros 
($13.50) per hour from the current 9.60 euros, which Scholz has said "means a 
wage increase for 10 million." And the coalition also pledged to get 400,000 
new apartments per year built in an effort to curb rising rental prices.

   Scholz has signaled continuity in foreign policy, saying the government 
would stand up for a strong European Union and nurture the trans-Atlantic 
alliance.

   The three-party alliance brings both opportunities and risks for all the 
participants, perhaps most of all the Greens. After 16 years in opposition, 
they will have to prove that they can achieve their overarching aim of cutting 
greenhouse gas emissions while working with partners who may have other 
priorities.

   Greens co-leader Robert Habeck will be Scholz's vice chancellor, heading a 
revamped economy and climate ministry. The government's No. 3 official will be 
Christian Lindner, the finance minister and leader of the Free Democrats, who 
insisted that the coalition reject tax hikes and looser curbs on running up 
debt.

   The incoming government is portraying itself as a departure in both style 
and substance from the "grand coalitions" of Germany's traditional big parties 
that Merkel led for all but four years of her tenure, with the Social Democrats 
as junior partners.

   In those tense alliances, the partners sometimes seemed preoccupied mostly 
with blocking each other's plans. Merkel's final term saw frequent infighting, 
some of it within her own center-right Union bloc, until the pandemic hit. She 
departs with a legacy defined largely by her acclaimed handling of a series of 
crises, rather than any grand visions for Germany.

   Scholz told his party last weekend that "it was difficult" governing with 
Merkel's bloc, which his Social Democrats narrowly beat in Germany's September 
election. He criticized the Union bloc's "this-far-and-no-further conservatism."

   The agreement to form a coalition government between three parties that had 
significant differences before the election was reached relatively quickly and 
in unexpected harmony.

   "If the good cooperation that worked while we were forming the government 
continues to work, it will be a very, very good time for the tasks that lie 
ahead of us," Scholz said. He acknowledged that dealing with the pandemic "will 
demand all our strength and energy."

   German federal and state leaders last week announced tough new restrictions 
that largely target unvaccinated people. In a longer-term move, parliament will 
consider a general vaccine mandate. Germany has seen daily COVID-19 infections 
rise to record levels this fall, though they may now be stabilizing, and 
hospitals are feeling the strain. The country has seen over 103,000 COVID-19 
deaths in the pandemic so far.

   Merkel has said she won't seek another political role after shepherding 
Germany through a turbulent era. The 67-year-old hasn't disclosed any future 
plans but said earlier this year that she will take time to read and sleep, 
"and then let's see where I show up."

 
 
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