Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What Germany's election means to Europe

Short answer: everything and everyone is in a tizzy over Merkel's failure to consolidate her party's early advatage--Europe and Germany are in for some tortured political circus. The IHT's John Vinocur ($) has a thoughtful piece on the consequences for Europe. He also has some very good thoughts on what may be Shcroeder's decision to make forming a government impossible, thus guaranteeing new elections.

Perhaps Schroeder feels that since he was able to make up so much ground in the closing days of the campaign, his party didn't really lose the elections, they just ran out of time. Additionally, new elections mean that his electoral scare tactics would have more time to work.
Germany's mess of an election outcome isn't just one of democracy's inconvenient but quick-to-fix shortfalls, surmountable with patience and modulated rhetoric and good will.

It's a blow to Europe's hopes of economic and social renewal sometime soon. And it's a massive kick in the shins for new optimism about a country so strong that Europe cannot work without it, yet one so short of confidence in its politics now that it voted both to oust the status quo of its leftist government while holding at arm's length the mildly risky job-creating trade-offs proposed by the center-right. [...]

How to rationalize into reassuring normality in the reflexive EU manner, that after seven years of no growth and mass unemployment, instead of clearing a way forward, Germany now has a defeated chancellor in Gerhard Schröder who insists he is its only feasible leader. It's a position disregarding these chunks of reality:

That the Christian Democratic bloc of Angela Merkel won the most seats in the Bundestag, which in German parliamentary custom gives her the task of forming a coalition.

That Joschka Fischer of the Greens, coalition partner of Schröder's Social Democrats, said that their majority had been voted out of office and that the Greens saw their role as in the opposition. Since Schröder has no likely coalition partner, his probable intent is to force a political street-fight against a background of insecurity, block Merkel from forming a government, and very possibly open the way to new elections.

How, at the heart of Europe, do you rationalize a massive power play of this variety, more Bolivian in feel than Berliner Republik? A leading Christian Democrat I talked to said it involves a destructive political game, disconnected from the issues, and tied for now to Schröder's bunkerish subtext of without-me-it-all-comes-down-on-your-heads. [...]

Ordinarily, the reasonable prospect for moving on, a grand coalition led by Merkel, excluding Schröder, and grouping Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, would be a weak, fragile solution involving months of negotiation to start up, and then endless discussions before any action.

Even in those circumstances - that is, if Schröder backs off, and/or the Greens reject as expected an offer to link up with Merkel and the Free Democrats - the prospects are certain for less solidity and more unpredictability in Germany than Europe has known in the postwar period.

Before the elections, and before Schröder's version of the results, I asked the reigning wise men from both big parties what they thought of a possible grand coalition's life cycle.

In Berlin, Wolfgang Schäuble of the Christian Democrats said he thought it would break up in 18 months to two years, with the Social Democrats expecting to win new elections in tandem with the not yet fully respectable Left Party.

Helmut Schmidt, the former Social Democratic chancellor, and a key player in the Grand Coalition of late 1960s, told me in his office in Hamburg that trouble would come by late winter or spring, but in the form of the Christian Democratic barons and regional leaders attempting to eat a shaky Merkel alive. He thought the parties' leaders were a bad personal match. And to the proposition that whatever policies Merkel specifically sought, it was quite impossible to tell from Schröder's campaign what the Social Democrats wanted or were willing to do on reforms, Schmidt replied, "I'd go along with that." [...]

It would be condescending to say that there is every reason to be confident in the resilience of German democracy and the durability of its institutions. But now in a discomforting place where it had hoped not to go, Germany will have to work very hard to reinforce these elements that everyone had thought so obvious so long.