Coalition of losers

With its voters rejecting both major parties, Germany will have the weakest government since World War II.

Published September 19, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

A quick glance at German election results will tell you that Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), got the most votes. A total of 35.2 percent, to be precise. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrats (SPD), on the other hand, only managed to garner 34.3 percent of all votes cast. She wins, he loses. Time to form a coalition government.

But German political theater this autumn is a bit more complex than that. Angela Merkel's results, as it happens, are nothing short of catastrophic. In June, just after she was nominated as the Union's candidate for the chancellery, surveys indicated that she had a shot at an absolute majority of over 50 percent. That soon proved overly optimistic, but even in the days before Sunday's election, no survey had her receiving less than 40 percent. But on election day, her result took a steep dive and will go down in history as one of the worst ever for the Union -- even worse than the 38.5 percent the party got in 2002.

Gerhard Schröder, on the other hand, was a lame duck all summer. After calling for snap elections in May, virtually every pundit in the country assumed the chancellor was rapidly heading for early retirement. Summer surveys had his SPD below 30 percent until early September, and he seemed to be desperately flailing about for an issue that might animate Germany's electorate. But then Schröder's numbers started improving and he went on the offensive. His result on Sunday, while still one of the worst in the history of his party, represents the SPD's high-water mark of support since its 38.5 percent result in 2002. Since that election, the party has had great trouble reaching the 30 percent mark in popularity polls.

So naturally, both politicians are claiming the chancellery.

Merkel on Sunday evening went before the television cameras -- trying her best to look the victor but not quite pulling it off -- and crowed that Schröder's governing coalition with the Green Party had been voted out of office. "We can be proud to say that we are the strongest political power in this country," she continued as her supporters cheered her on. Clearly she was ready to be crowned chancellor.

At virtually the same time, however, Schröder was offering victory salutes. "I feel validated," he shouted to cheering supporters, and then promised that the next four years in Germany would see a stable government under his leadership. In the subsequent television discussion attended by the leaders of all the major parties, Schröder could hardly contain himself, verbally strutting about like a peacock with Angela Merkel all the while glumly -- and for the most part silently -- looking on.

All of which means that Germany, on the Monday after the election, has two chancellors, no coalition government and little in the way of a plan how to resolve the situation. It was an election without a victor.

Even worse, it isn't clear that the upcoming coalition negotiations will result in a government able to govern. Schröder, after all, is no longer the reform chancellor. After years of trying to push through needed cuts to Germany's bloated social welfare system, he suddenly jettisoned his tough-love talk during the final campaign push and hammered on his opponent Merkel for being cold-hearted and even tried to portray her as a money-hungry neoliberal. In other words, if Schröder does manage to come out on top and remain chancellor, he will be a chancellor without a plan. He has no platform and has chucked his reform program aside for political expediency.

Merkel, on the other hand, ran a campaign of frankness. Months before the election, she told voters that, were they to elect her, she would raise the sales tax by two percentage points. Her party also promised job-market reforms that would make it easier for employers to cut costs by laying off employees and said she would keep Germany on the reform path. Mostly, however, Merkel's campaign slogan seemed to be "Germany is in a crisis, so vote for us." The voters responded by being simply unable to put the X in the CDU box on Sunday. They chickened out in part because the Union painted too dark a picture.

"Maybe we concentrated too much on describing the reality and too little on explaining how we wanted to make it better," said Jörg Schönbohm, a CDU leader in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, on Sunday night.

Indeed. At the end of the day, more Germans voted for parties to the left of the political center (a total of 51.1 percent among the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party) than for those to the right (45 percent for Merkel's Union and the neo-liberal FDP). Hardly a mandate for Merkel's campaign platform.

Ironically, however, it will be exactly these two parties -- Schröder's platformless SPD and Merkel's shunned Union -- that will likely be forming the country's next government. Now, Germany is faced with a coalition of the losers.

Of course, there are other options. Merkel could team up with the FDP and the Greens. Schröder could do the same. But that could prove incredibly difficult. Guido Westerwelle, head of the FDP, has for months said that he would not form a coalition that included the environmentally friendly Green Party. On Sunday night -- even after his party polled a respectable 9.8 percent of the vote -- Westerwelle once again said that, since a governing coalition with Merkel's Union wouldn't be possible, his party would head for the opposition. On Monday, he seems to be singing a slightly different tune and has said he would consider working with the Greens in a coalition with Merkel's Union if the Greens "re-invent themselves" -- likely a reference to the party getting rid of Joschka Fischer. Westerwelle, though, faces a credibility gap if he pursues such a coalition.

So what will the near future bring for Germany? During the summer, many had been referring to the elections as being a key moment in the country's destiny. Now, it seems the country will be led by the weakest government in its postwar history. Further reform to Germany's ailing economy, further plans to reduce its hefty unemployment problems, sleek budgets to combat rising national debt all seem unlikely. Instead, gridlock may well be the name of the game. In a Monday editorial, the Wall Street Journal opined that "the 'sick man of Europe' is likely to remain bedridden for a while longer."

Germany's parliament has to meet by Oct. 18 to elect a chancellor. Between now and then, it's a safe bet that the country's political leadership will be leading talks the likes of which Germany has never before seen. Two political heavyweights who have lost their heft will be circling each other for the privilege of becoming the head of an unwieldy coalition. And Merkel, meanwhile, will have to be constantly looking over her shoulder for attacks from within her own party.

Berlin political stock has rarely had less value.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online at or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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