German election winner Olaf Scholz: "The people have elected a new government. And they want me to be the next chancellor."

German election winner Olaf Scholz: "The people have elected a new government. And they want me to be the next chancellor."


Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

Interview with Forerunner for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “I Want To Make the World a Better Place”

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, the front-runner to become Germany’s next chancellor, discusses his plan to create a stable government and reveals what he has in common with Angela Merkel.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Scholz, what is the message behind the results of the German federal election?

Scholz: Quite clearly, the people have elected a new government. They want a new beginning and a progressive government. They have made the Social Democratic Party (SPD) the strongest party. And they want me to be the next chancellor.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the Germans voted for a "traffic light” coalition government between the center-left SPD, the Green Party and the economically laissez faire Free Democratic Party (FDP)?

Scholz: With their votes, they have made three parties stronger – the SPD, the Greens and the FDP. This is a message to these three to get the job done and move to form a government together.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2021 (October 2nd, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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DER SPIEGEL: You’re now speaking of a new beginning, but in the election campaign you presented yourself as a guarantor of continuity and stability. What do Germans want: a fresh start or stability?

Scholz: People want progress. The three parties of the traffic light are united by the idea of progress in society. They have different but quite overlapping ideas about it. The SPD’s ideas of progress have to do with respect and industrial modernization, including man-made climate change, which we want to stop. Climate change naturally plays a prominent role in the Greens' narrative of progress. And the FDP is focused on technological modernization and civil rights. I am optimistic that we can be successful in assembling a traffic light coalition.

Scholz during the interview conducted at his office in the Federal Finance Ministry: "You have to understand why people in rich countries of the West are worried."

Scholz during the interview conducted at his office in the Federal Finance Ministry: "You have to understand why people in rich countries of the West are worried."

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel won re-election three times because the electorate felt the chancellor was sparing them from the impositions of our times. Are Germans afraid of change?

Scholz: During the election campaign, I constantly spoke about how we can create security in changing times. What can people rely on? You have to understand why people in rich countries of the West are worried.


Scholz: People know that, unlike a few decades ago, there are a few countries with industrial capabilities similar to ours. This creates a feeling of uncertainty. It is also why right-wing populist parties are on the rise in Europe’s rich societies, why Donald Trump succeeded and why there was a majority for Brexit. Their misleading promise is that we can return to the past. We have to have answers to that.

DER SPIEGEL: Which ones?

Scholz: We need to modernize our industry so that we will still have good jobs in 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Many fear that, at some point, we will be gazing sadly at the prosperity of other continents. The voters want us to tackle the tasks that are facing us. That’s what people told me in the steel mills, the chemical companies, the mechanical engineering companies and in the car industry. Germany must dare to lay the technological and industrial foundations for the future. And the aim is to become a climate-neutral industrialized country in just under 25 years. This can create new confidence.

DER SPIEGEL: You really believe that after your party spent the last eight years as part of Angela Merkel's governing coalition, voters backed the SPD because they think it stands for progress and a new beginning?

Scholz: Successful social democratic parties don’t believe that life used to be better. We have been driven since the 19th century by the idea that a better future can be achieved through good policy. And that is exactly what the citizens voted for.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you consider to be a better future?

Scholz: Respect must once again play a major role in this society. That is of paramount concern for me. How can we prevent society from drifting apart? How can every professional achievement and every life achievement be given equal recognition? Our task in the rich countries is to find an answer to these questions.

DER SPIEGEL: And what is your answer?

Scholz: I would like to live in a society where we meet as equals, with very different professions, lifestyles and places of residence. Where no one looks down on the other. Progressive parties are committed to upward mobility in society. They ensure that children from poor homes can also go to college. But they also know that a craftswoman or a grocery store clerk, a parcel delivery person or a geriatric nurse do work that is worth just as much as the labor of someone who, like me, went to law school and practiced law.

DER SPIEGEL: During the election campaign, you cast yourself as the true heir to Angela Merkel. What do you have in common with the chancellor?

Scholz: Ms. Merkel has a successful government record, and even as a Social Democrat, it is not difficult for me to acknowledge that. We were, after all, part of the coalition in three of the four Merkel governments and pushed through many things that were important to us. Ms. Merkel and I both know that you need perseverance in politics. That you must fight long and hard for the things that are important to you. In a federal country like Germany, in Europe and in the world, you have to coordinate and harmonize with many. I started the process and agreement on a global minimum tax three years ago, and 130 countries have now committed to it. This would not have been possible without perseverance.

Chancellor candidate Scholz: Was he a stronger candidate – or did he luck out by having weak challengers?

Chancellor candidate Scholz: Was he a stronger candidate – or did he luck out by having weak challengers?

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Who did the Germans actually vote for? The SPD or Olaf Scholz?

Scholz: People could only vote for me directly in my constituency. But it is still clear: I have been a member of the Social Democratic Party since I was 17 years old, and the SPD and I ran together. By voting for the SPD, many expressed the wish that I become the next chancellor.

DER SPIEGEL: We ask because the approval rating for you as a person was much higher than that of your party.

Scholz: What party gets 50 percent or more approval across our broad spectrum? People who put their check mark next to the SPD want the policies I have been talking about in the TV debates and in the town squares.

DER SPIEGEL: How big a role did you play in the party’s election success? And to what degree do you owe it to the luck of having weak challengers?

Scholz: The decisive factor was that the SPD stuck together. The leadership is united and the whole party is united. My friend Gesine Schwan once said that unity cannot be imposed from the top down. It has to come from the heart. That is exactly where we have succeeded. That is why the people have placed their trust in us. It was also important that we said very early on who the SPD was sending into the race for the chancellorship. We have been facing this test for more than a year. And in the end, we had the strength not only for the marathon, but also for the final sprint.

DER SPIEGEL: The SPD only received 25.7 percent of the votes, and yet it is still the strongest party in the German parliament. Does that not provide proof that the era of big-tent parties is reaching its end?

Scholz: No, the SPD is a big-tent party.

DER SPIEGEL: Seems like it's just a question of definition.

Scholz: A big-tent party is not defined by election results. It is about a basic mindset. A big-tent party seeks to organize the consensus that is necessary for all of society. As such, it is the opposite of a niche party that speaks only for a part of the population.

DER SPIEGEL: So, you’re saying it has nothing to do with the size of the party?

Scholz: The SPD wasn’t always a big-tent party. It first had to develop to become one. It always had a lot of members and quite decent success. But it only became a big-tent party at the end of the 1950s with the "Godesberger Program.” That was the beginning of the long run that led to the chancellorships of Willy Brandt and later Helmut Schmidt in 1969. That was also the basis for the electoral success we had in 1998. Now, the SPD has become the strongest party for the fourth time in postwar history. Our success will inspire other social democratic parties in Europe and perhaps beyond.


Scholz: If we succeed here in Germany in strengthening societal cohesion and achieving the imminent technological modernization, others will try it too.

DER SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the year, the SPD was polling at just 15 percent. Now, you're posing as the savior of social democracy in Europe. Isn’t that a bit bold?

Scholz: There is more to it than that. The SPD has undergone a process of reorientation. Ultimately, the fundamental question is what the meaning of social democratic politics is in a rich capitalist country like Germany. We answered that little by little and stayed our course. I always thought this success was possible.

DER SPIEGEL: Wolfgang Schäuble said a few years ago that the decline of the SPD was not a reason for the Christian Democrats to rejoice, but a cause for concern, because it showed that the big-tent parties were losing importance in Germany. And if one is hit, the other won’t remain unscathed in the long run. How concerned are you about the state of the Christian Democrats?

Scholz: There must be political groupings that have societal cohesion and the big picture in mind. That is what a big-tent party means to me. That applies to the SPD, but of course I would also like to see a conservative big-tent party that has its own answers to the questions of the 21st century. That would be worth every effort.

DER SPIEGEL: And that brings us to the upcoming coalition negotiations. How do you intend to bring the SPD, a big-tent party, together with the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), two niche parties?

Scholz: If you want to form a government together, you have to have trust, because later we will have to solve many tasks that were not foreseeable at the time of the coalition negotiations. It is not helpful to call your partner "amateurs,” as happened when the CDU governed together with the FDP.

DER SPIEGEL: So, a coalition agreement can’t regulate the small details.

Scholz: No, there won't be any draft laws in it. For some issues, it is enough to agree in principle. But there is one thing that is even more important: You have to run a coalition with the ambition of getting re-elected at the next election. This will only work if all the coalition partners in the government come together with their ideas. And they must not only be good for the parties involved – they also need to be measured by: What is good for Germany and Europe?

DER SPIEGEL: We assume that you have closely analyzed the failed negotiations in 2017 between the Christian Democrats, the FDP and the Greens to form a government. What went wrong back then?

Scholz: It was wrong for the FDP to leave the negotiations, but of course they were right in one point with their criticism. The coalition negotiations created the impression that it was all about the Union (eds: the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which join forces at the national level) and the Greens. The FDP were basically just expected to sign off on it, but that, of course, is not the way things work. Political leadership is about the parties talking to each other on equal footing and all of them finding their way into the coalition agreement.

DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, you aren't participating in initial exploratory talks to form a government. The FDP and Greens seem to want to settle the matter between themselves.

Scholz: I think it is right that they talk among themselves first. That is a consequence of the experience four years ago and can only be a good thing when it comes to mutual trust and the formation of a good government.

"You should never conduct negotiations by constantly threatening to do something else."

"You should never conduct negotiations by constantly threatening to do something else."

Foto: Andreas Chudowski

DER SPIEGEL: The Left Party didn’t receive enough votes to be a possible coalition partner for the SPD and the Greens. Does the lack of that option leave you with less leverage in your talks with the FDP?

Scholz: You should never conduct negotiations by constantly threatening to do something else. One lesson from real life is that genuine affection is the result of serious engagement.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you hoping to find love in a government together with the Greens and the FDP?

Scholz: I said affection. With the aim of accomplishing something together.

DER SPIEGEL: You once said: "If you order leadership, that's what you get.” Does that also apply to a three-party coalition?

Scholz: Even the most powerful politician in the country is not alone in the world. But the reverse is also true: It is about moving forward. Just being there is not enough.

DER SPIEGEL: You're dodging the question. We were asking about the role of the chancellor in a three-party coalition government. Does the chancellor have more of a moderating roll or is it a true leadership function?

Scholz: The government as a whole has a leadership task. It is about leadership in the Chancellery and in the ministries. We need to move the future of the country forward, and we will.

DER SPIEGEL: You speak of a common project for progress, but the reality is that there are clashing policy approaches. The liberal FDP wants to keep the state out of people's lives to the degree possible and is more focused on the market. The SPD and the Greens are more statist and want a strong state. How are you going to fit those competing interests together?

Scholz: I have specific ideas about how they might fit. Neither the SPD nor the Greens see themselves as being statist. But I ask for your indulgence, I am not conducting coalition negotiations with DER SPIEGEL. It would not be wise to talk about any red lines now. Even from different starting points, it must be possible to reach an understanding in the end.

DER SPIEGEL: What will you have to give up in order to reach an agreement? The wealth tax, for example?

Scholz: As I said, we are not conducting the talks via the media. We are currently experiencing a special moment in German history. In terms of the country’s industrial modernization, we can most easily compare it with the period at the end of the 19th century, when there were also great leaps and changes.

DER SPIEGEL: What does that have to do with the formation of a coalition government?

Scholz: We do not want to have to play catch-up with the developments. Not in terms of digitalization or the gigabit society. We have major policy overlaps – when it comes, for example, to a first-class mobile communications network for Germany. We know that we need to expand and modernize the power grid. We will expand energy production from wind power and solar. To achieve this, we must streamline planning and approval procedures and support private-sector investment in industrial modernization. There is a lot that can be agreed upon.

DER SPIEGEL: The FDP could say the same thing – speeding up planning procedures and private-sector investment. Where is the social democratic approach there?

Scholz: The SPD has always been a party that is wedded to technological process. The special thing about this period is that workers themselves are calling for modernization. There is an opportunity for a coalition of progress that goes far beyond the governing coalition and encompasses the whole of society.

DER SPIEGEL: Then let’s get specific. Green Party co-head Robert Habeck has conceded that not even the Greens’ plan goes far enough to meet the climate target of limiting global warming to 1.5 percent. And the SPD plans don’t even go that far. Do you even want to achieve that goal?

Scholz: Yes. We are facing existential challenges. Climate change not only affects the quality of life of future generations – we are already experiencing it with the floods in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia. That is why we need to speed up our efforts and understand that global warming can only be stopped through a different industrial policy.

DER SPIEGEL: That sounds pretty vague.

Scholz: I don’t think so. It will not be enough for us to reduce our emissions of climate-damaging gases in Germany. We are too small a part of the global population for that. We need to prove to those who would like to have our standard of living that coal-fired power plants are always the worse choice. The German economy, one of the most productive in the world, shows that it is possible to reconcile prosperity and climate protection.

DER SPIEGEL: Europe doesn’t play a major role in this?

Scholz: Of course Europe has to do its part. Our automobile industry would not dare to make the big change if Germany were the only market where this worked. It is already necessary now to be able to charge your electric car in Umbria, Brittany and Uppsala.

DER SPIEGEL: Social Democratic chancellors like Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder were always further to the center politically than their parties. There was constant tension. How do you intend to keep that from happening to you?

Scholz: The SPD has promised the people pragmatic and grounded policies, and that is exactly what we will give them.

DER SPIEGEL: That won’t be easy with a parliamentary group that is clearly further to the left than the previous one. Almost a quarter of its members are from the youth wing of the party.

Scholz: On Wednesday, the 104 new (SPD) members of parliament introduced themselves at the parliamentary group meeting. There are many young people, many women and many who are first or second-generation immigrants. Soldiers, firefighters, doctors, educators and businesswomen introduced themselves. The new faction is a reflection of society. I was emotionally moved by that.

DER SPIEGEL: The party that wants to pick the next chancellor was elected with only 25.7 percent of the vote, which has never happened before in German history.

Scholz: In Finland, a prime minister is governing with only 17.7 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: At the same time, you have a parliamentary group that has moved to the left and a three-party coalition with which you would have to govern. You would be the weakest chancellor Germany has ever had.

Scholz: Nah.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the source of your optimism?

Scholz: I have ambitious goals for our country. And I will use all my strength to ensure that we achieve them.

DER SPIEGEL: Which requires a strong foundation in power politics.

Scholz: Power politics alone is not enough. It is worth nothing if you do not want anything. I became a politician because I want to make the world a better place.

DER SPIEGEL: Is a Jamaica coalition of the CDU, the FDP and the Greens a realistic possibility?

Scholz: The election result is clear. The CDU and CSU suffered an historic defeat and have been voted out of office. It is clear in every poll that the people do not want the Union to be part of the next government.

DER SPIEGEL: You have announced that half of your cabinet will be comprised of women. Are you asking the same of the FDP?

Scholz: I believe that in a progressive coalition in 2021, all parties will demand this of themselves. I, for one, want to achieve that for the cabinet.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Scholz, will you be the new chancellor at the end of these negotiations?

Scholz: Yes.

DER SPIEGEL: Thank you very much for this interview.

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