BERLIN – Germany’s elections are over. The winners and losers are clear, and the political landscape has changed profoundly. The real drama, however, occurred not among the country’s main parties but on the boundaries of the political spectrum.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is celebrating a landslide victory, with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) having fallen just short of an outright parliamentary majority. But the scale of her triumph is mainly due to the collapse of her liberal coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which for the first time in the German Federal Republic’s history will not be represented in the Bundestag.
The liberals have always formed a key part of German postwar democracy; now they are gone. Responsibility for that lies, first and foremost, with the FDP. No governing party can afford such woefully incompetent ministers and leadership; Merkel had merely to stand back and watch the liberals’ public suicide over the last four years.
The opposition parties, too, paid the price for their failure to come to grips with reality. The economy is humming, unemployment is low, and most Germans are better off than ever before. But, rather than focusing on the government’s weaknesses – energy, Europe, education, and family policy – they bet their political fortunes on social justice. Merkel’s Panglossian campaign was much more in tune with the sentiment of the German electorate than the opposing parties’ tristesse about working-class distress, which was rightly seen as a ploy for raising taxes.
Governing majorities (and therefore elections) in Germany are always won in the center. Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schröder, knew this well. But this time her opponents – the SPD, Die Linke (The Left), and the Greens – cleared the center and cannibalized each other on the left. The leadership issue made matters worse – the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück and the Greens’ Jürgen Trittin never had the slightest chance against Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
The only new factor that could bring about a structural change in German politics is the rise of the new Alternative for Germany (AfD). Though its share of the popular vote fell just below the 5% threshold required to enter the Bundestag, the party performed surprisingly well. If its leadership can build on this success, the AfD will make news in next spring’s European Parliament elections.
Indeed, the AfD scored well in eastern Germany – where three state elections will be held in 2014 – by gaining many votes from The Left. This implies that the AfD could establish itself on the German political landscape permanently, which would make a comeback for the FDP all the more difficult.
Still, despite the FDP’s implosion and the opposition parties’ disastrous electoral strategy, Merkel needs a coalition partner. The Left is not an option, and any attempt at building a coalition with the Greens – a party that will be reeling from the shock of its poor performance for quite some time – would court instability.
So Germany will be left with a grand coalition – just as the German electorate wanted. The SPD will recoil at the prospect, sit on the fence, and finally give in, because Merkel has a powerful disciplinary instrument: she could call a new election, in which the CDU would probably win an outright majority.
A grand coalition is not the worst option. Nothing fades as quickly as the glow of an election victory, and the German idyll will soon be disturbed by harsh reality – the European Union’s simmering crisis, Syria, Iran, and energy policy.
The need for consensus is especially acute with respect to the difficult decisions concerning Europe that the German government now faces. Greece needs more debt relief. A European banking union with joint liability cannot be put off much longer. The same is true of many other issues. A winter of discontent awaits Merkel, followed by a European election campaign that is likely to bring the CDU back down to earth.
But no one should expect a significant change in Merkel’s EU policy or her approach to foreign affairs and security questions. Her positions on these issues have now been endorsed by a huge portion of the German electorate; and, from a certain age, most people – including those in high office – do not change easily. Besides, in these matters, there is no longer much difference between the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD.
A grand coalition could show greater flexibility in addressing the euro crisis, but less on questions of foreign and security policy. In this respect, however, Germany would gain much from the opportunity to craft a proper foreign policy in the framework of a Western alliance that in recent years has had a dangerous void where Germany used to be – though this is more a vague hope than a concrete expectation.
It will also be interesting to see if and how Merkel tackles Germany’s muddled Energiewende (energy turnaround) – the move to a low-carbon economy that is the most important domestic project of her tenure. Either she will succeed with it, or it will become a monumental disgrace for Germany and a disaster for the German economy. The decisive questions now are whether she musters the courage to concentrate all the necessary responsibilities for this mega-project in the energy ministry, and whom she entrusts with overseeing this Herculean task.
The late editor of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein, who never liked former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, titled his commentary about German reunification “Congratulations, Chancellor!” For Merkel, Sunday’s election has opened a door, especially with respect to overcoming the euro crisis and to deepening European integration. But, until she walks through it, I will refrain from congratulating her.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2013.
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