Olaf Scholz, center, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Germany

Analyst on center-left gains in German election: 'It was time for a change'

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She joined The World's host Marco Werman from Washington to analyze the election results and discuss their significance.

The World

German voters have spoken, and the country is taking a slight turn to the left.

The Social Democratic Party won the most seats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, by the slimmest of margins on Sunday. The party's head, Olaf Scholz, could now become Germany's next chancellor — if he can form a ruling coalition.

Scholz's party is pushing for a quick agreement on a coalition government, but Europe’s biggest economy could still be in for weeks of uncertainty.

Related: 'We are not alone': Volunteers provide critical support for Germans struggling in the aftermath of deadly flood

Sholz called for outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc to go into opposition after its worst-ever result in a national election. Both parties finished with well under 30% of the vote.

During Merkel’s 16 years in office, she was seen abroad, not just as Germany’s leader, but in many ways, as Europe’s leader.

Related: How a team of musicologists and computer scientists completed Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She joined The World's host Marco Werman from Washington to analyze the election results and discuss their significance.

Marco Werman: So, voters did not give outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party a victory. Were these the results that many expected in Germany?
Constanze Stelzenmüller: I think all of us were really expecting to be surprised, rather than to have something confirmed. For one, we've had a historic number of mail-in votes, something that made the polls more unreliable than normal. We had a very high percentage of people, by German standards, over a third, saying that they intended to make up their mind at the last moment. I think all of us sort of sat back and said, "Well, we'll have to see what happens on the day." But I'm not surprised that the CDU came out relatively badly because they had been showing distinct signs of electoral and political exhaustion.
Right, those are the Christian Democrats, that was Angela Merkel's party. So, tell us a bit about Olaf Scholz, the man at the head of the victors here, the Social Democrats.
So, Olaf Scholz is one of the three candidates running for chancellor in this election, probably the one with the most executive experience. He was mayor of Hamburg and he was finance minister in Angela Merkel's coalition. The other thing is that he had campaigned very shrewdly, I think, on his being a sort of Social Democratic male version of Angela Merkel — no surprises, nothing to be jittery about, calm, no inclinations to sort of revolutionary policies.
So, what has the reaction been in Germany to this victory by Olaf Scholz and the Social Democrats of the party?
There is a sense in Germany that after 16 years of Angela Merkel, who literally at this point is Germany's longest-serving postwar chancellor — and with her, the Christian Democrats, the center-right party — it was time for a change. That is, I think, the prevailing mood.
So, the Green Party, they came in third, and that is not a win, but in a parliamentary system, third is good news, at least in this case. Explain how the Greens could become a kingmaker here when Scholz tries to form a coalition government.
So, there are two kingmakers, really, and it's the Greens and the Liberals. So, I think more than the Greens, really, the Liberals are the kingmaker. I'll tell you why. The Greens and the Christian Democrats are psychologically, to some degree, the losers here. Although the Greens have their best result ever. But they had been expected to get about as much, or more, as the two centrist parties — the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats — and they didn't. Whereas the Liberals have the strongest showing that they've had in a very long time. And so, they and the Social Democrats, I think, see themselves as the winners of this election.
There are a couple of big issues for Germans in this election. Among them was climate change. How did that impact the vote?
Every German was, you know, you'd have to have lived in a cave to have not heard about the disastrous flooding in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia a couple of weeks ago. And German forests also have been suffering from repeated droughts. I mean, this is not something that ordinary Germans aren't aware of at this point. So, the Greens, I think, thought they had Germany's and German voters' attention on this issue. But I suspect that they underestimated the degree to which voters would be willing to follow them on this as the only issue that they were going to vote on.
How will the White House see this vote, do you think?
I think the White House has made it very clear that it sees Germany as a central element of its Europe strategy. And the Biden administration's bilateral deal, not sanctioning Nord Stream 2, I think is proof of that.
One last thing, a little detail I noticed, Germany votes by paper ballot. I saw a picture of a vast hall postvote just filled with people, I mean, were those election officials counting paper ballots by hand? Is that how it works?
I've never seen exactly how they are counted. I suspect that they are machine read and machine counted. They are certainly marked by hand and then folded and put into an envelope and taken out of that envelope by election officials, which has the great advantage of it being very difficult to hack the system. And as you saw last night, the results are available pretty quickly.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 219 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.