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image source, Reutersimage caption"If you want Scholz, you'll vote SPD" – For the final weeks of the election campaign, Olaf Scholz has led Germany's opinion polls

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz was once unflatteringly nicknamed "Scholzomat" (Scholzomaton) – but in the final weeks of the election campaign he has outshone his rivals and his old robot-like, technocratic image is well behind him.

As candidate for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the 63-year-old former Hamburg mayor is now seen as favourite to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. If he wins, he will become Germany's first SPD chancellor since Gerhard Schröder left office in 2005.

His pragmatic handling of the Covid crisis – he is Mrs Merkel's deputy – won him much praise and high approval ratings.

His detractors have rounded on his record as finance minister, accusing him of failures in two big financial scandals.

Managing the Covid crisis

Olaf Scholz oversaw the emergency €750bn (£675bn; $884bn) funding package put together by the federal government to help German businesses and workers survive the pandemic.

"This is the bazooka that's needed to get the job done," said Mr Scholz. "We are putting all our weapons on the table to show that we are strong enough to overcome any economic challenge that this problem might pose."

He chaired cabinet meetings when Chancellor Merkel went into self-isolation as a precaution.

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Despite the pain of the Covid crisis it gave Mr Scholz a platform – managing a colossal amount of state welfare and fighting for social cohesion, true to his left-wing roots.

image source, EPAimage captionMr Scholz helped Chancellor Merkel (R) to clinch the EU crisis deal last month

Before his SPD candidacy was announced he habitually said, when asked if he would run for chancellor, "we need to work, not indulge in vanities".

Solidarity with France

With France Mr Scholz was also lead architect of the EU's €750bn pandemic recovery fund.

image source, Getty Imagesimage captionOlaf Scholz's doctor brother Jens helped in Germany's airlift of French Covid-19 patients

With Angela Merkel about to step down, his record in maintaining Franco-German solidarity also works in his favour.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire praised not only Olaf for his solidarity with France, but also his brother Dr Jens Scholz, who airlifted six critically ill French Covid-19 patients to hospital in Kiel. It was an expensive life-saving mission, paid for by the German government.

"So thank you Olaf, for all you have done already. But thanks also to your brother. It really is a great German family, the Scholz family," said Mr Le Maire.

Frustrations on left

In SPD ranks, however, Olaf Scholz is seen as a conservative, and the party is co-led by Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who are further to the left.

image source, AFPimage captionOlaf Scholz (2nd L) relaxing with SPD colleagues in 2018

Mr Scholz, who is married to fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst, grew up in Hamburg and entered politics as a Socialist Youth leader, having studied labour law.

He was mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, during which time his politics became less radical. He was first elected to the federal parliament (Bundestag) in 1998.

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The SPD has been the junior coalition partner of Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) for much of the past eight years and many SPD members have complained that the policies agreed by their grand coalition or "GroKo" were too conservative.

Even though the SPD has not won a national election since 2002, Mr Scholz has steered them to within touching distance of doing so, despite his reputation for being dull and uninspiring.

During televised election debates his CDU rival, Armin Laschet, repeatedly accused Mr Scholz of failing to rule out an alliance with the left-wing Die Linke.

But voters know that the vice chancellor has worked in tandem, successfully, with Angela Merkel and for many he will be seen as more of a continuity candidate than her anointed successor.

Die Linke's big policy plan to leave Nato is not on his agenda. "Everybody who knows me, knows what they are getting," he said during one debate.

Where he does differ from the centre right is his backing for an increased, €12 minimum wage, on which he agrees with the Greens. He also pledges to tighten rent controls while focusing on building new flats.

His debate performances were widely praised as assured, even if he came across as predictable, and he has been helped by a lacklustre campaign from Mr Laschet.

Mr Scholz has looked most vulnerable when pressed over his department's handling of two financial scandals, Wirecard and the cum-ex trading fraud.

The collapse of payments company Wirecard was the biggest fraud scandal in modern-day Germany and a report this year said Olaf Scholz bore responsibility for the regulator's failure.

He became caught up in the cum-ex share dividend scam because he was mayor of Hamburg when millions of euros were lost.

And yet neither affair appears to have caused him much harm with the voters. Commentators wonder if the scandals were just too complex for voters to worry about.

Six days before the election, he unexpectedly appeared in person to answer MPs' questions about money-laundering investigations. One liberal MP said he had a "lack of grip on his own affairs".