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Apparently Olaf Scholz is/was not the leader of the SPD, despite being the SPD's chancellor candidate.

In 2019, Scholz wanted to become SPD chairman. However, in a membership vote, he lost out to Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who had promised to move the SPD further to the left.

Scholz has always been seen as belonging to the more conservative wing of the SPD. That made it all the more surprising when Esken and Walter-Borjans nominated him as the party's chancellor candidate in August 2020. In the end, the SPD opted for a chancellor candidate it had not wanted as party leader.

So how [un]common is this type of situation in German politics, for the chancellor candidate of a (major) party not to be its formal party leader?

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  • 1
    There are different traditions in different parties on this topic. I think for the CDU (and the CSU sister party) and the FDP it is very common that their most senior member of government is also the head of the party. The Green party has an internal rule that they separate the roles. The SPD seems to go either way depending on the politicians currently around.
    – quarague
    Nov 30 '21 at 20:43
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Not uncommon. It's not the first time, especially for the SPD:

  • 1961 Willi Brandt wasn't the SPD leader
  • 1965 Ludwig Erhard wasn't the CDU leader
  • Helmut Schmidt was never the SPD leader
  • 1983 Hans-Jochen Vogel wasn't the SPD leader
  • 1987 Johannes Rau wasn't the SPD leader
  • 1990 Oskar Lafontaine wasn't the SPD leader
  • 1998 Gerhard Schröder wasn't the SPD leader
  • 2005 Gerhard Schröder wasn't the SPD leader
  • 2009 Frank-Walter Steinmeier wasn't the SPD leader
  • 2013 Peer Steinbrück wasn't the SPD leader

Looking back since at least Willy Brandt (1972) it's rarer for an SPD chancellor candidate to be the SPD leader than not to be.

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Somewhat uncommon, I'd say.

Legally, there is no candidate for chancellor until after the Federal election. Germans elect their representatives who assemble in the Bundestag and then elect a Chancellor.

Politically, nominating a candidate is an expression of the faith that a party is seriously in the running for the top spot. A communications exercise. It used to be clear that both the Union (CDU and CSU) and the SPD were considered able to become the senior partner of a majority coalition. In 2002 the FDP ran with a Chancellor candidate, which was widely considered hubris and/or a marketing gimmick. In 2021 there were at least three parties in the running for the top spot of a majority coalition -- some questioned if it was only two, and if the SPD was not likely to lead a coalition.

Except for the special case of the Union, where obviously only one of two chairpersons can run, such a situation is either the sign of a transition period, or unresolved factional infighting, or both. Everybody understood that of the co-chairs of the SPD, Norbert Walter-Borjans was too old to run again for such an office (he had retired before as a state-level cabinet minister) and Saskia Esken was not experienced enough. They were clearly a transitional team. Walter-Borjans has since indicated that he would not run again for a party chairmanship in the next term.

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