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August 30, 2005

Meanwhile in Germany
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

While the pot bubbles in Iraq, we check back on the September 18 German elections. A few weeks ago, the sky was falling in German politics.  The Financial Times’ Berlin bureau chief saw the possibility of Germany “slipping into the fully-fledged political crisis that it has been edging towards, unnoticed, for the past two decades.”

And current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder raised the specter of civil unrest if a conservative coalition gains power and enacts significant economic reforms.

Why?  Angst about Schroeder's apparent inability to convince Germans of the necessity of economic reforms and sacrifice (labor market flexibility uber alles, apparently), and the emergence of a new potential kingmaker/spoiler party, Die Linke (the leftists), a union of the East German communist successor Party of Democratic Socialism and a splinter group from Schroeder's SPD.  Up to this week, polls were showing half of voters undecided, allowing a political analyst's paradise of speculation and matchmaking. 

Now, though, the latest polls suggest that the undecided are making up their minds in Germany, and, with the election less than three weeks off, breaking for conservative challenger Angela Merkel, her Christian Democrats and their expected junior partner the Free Democrats.

This after weeks of agonizing about all sorts of scrambled possibilities as undecideds stood close to 50 percent:

Would the governing Social Democrats under Schroeder slip back into power with the same anti-US rhetoric that brought Schroeder a surprise victory last time, this time focused on US designs on Iran instead of Iraq?

(Looks like not – Schroeder is picking up undecideds at a much slower rate than Merkel.)

Would the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats fail to clear 50 percent, requiring a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats? (Imagine W. offering Joe Lieberman the vice presidency in 2000 and you get the idea of the angst behind this.) Free Democrat parliamentarian Werner Hoyer said that such a coalition would be “reason to emigrate.”

Others are calmer.  An American analyst argues that Germany’s previous CDU/CSU-SPD Grand Coalition, of 1966-1969, was the necessary confidence-builder that paved the way for the long and successful reigns of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt; that it strengthened the center-right FPD and paved the way for the emergence of the Greens. Janes also argues that the period set Germany up for a decade of economic prosperity and laid the foundations of Germany’s Ostpolitik, the engagement with the East that helped undermine the foundations of the Berlin Wall. The Grand Coalition period, though, can also be seen as the (re) birth of right- and left-wing extremist movements. A fertile time for good and ill, in short.

I sense from the coverage that the levels of hysteria about the results that we were seeing a few weeks ago are ratcheting down. Chief among reasons is the slippage of Die Linke (the Leftists). While it surged earlier in the summer, the latest polls suggest it could miss the 5 % threshold to enter parliament at all.

So what does it all mean?  The question of whether Germany is "ready" for a woman Chancellor is of interest for various reasons. 

Then there's the question of what Merkel can do on the economy and will do with Germany abroad.  She is likely to make further efforts to rebuild ties with the US, but there will be limits on what she will want to offer while her top priority is difficult and unpopular reforms at home.  Some imagine her taking up the banner of European leadership in the post-Eu referendum vacuum, but this too seems unlikely given the challenges she will face at home, at least right away.  A CDU administration is likely to produce some significant shifts within the EU, not least on trade policy; the French will find themselves more isolated.  Would the EU then be able to move more strongly to put the US in a corner on agricultural liberalization and other trade issues?  An interesting question.

Lastly, even though the furor has died down a bit, significant changes are afoot in Germany.  Manfred Guellner, head of Germany's Forsa polling group, put it this way – the institutional system that has given Germany so many decades of stability “has reached its limits.”

Two weeks ago I ran into a former US Ambassador to Germany, a man never at a loss for words.  What's going to happen?  I asked.

"I don't know" he said.  "But fasten your seatbelts.  The post-Cold War order is breaking up.  And really, why shouldn't it?"


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