Despite appearances, and for all the stalemate it produced, yesterday’s German election has certainly confirmed that Germans are neither too afraid of change, nor too scared of instability. In fact, they chose both.
We don’t know who will blink first – so it seems like a good moment for some reflections. Yesterday’s election aftermath was truly impressive. Usually at least the demoscopes at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen are so reliable that there’s no news after 6pm, when they announce their exit poll result. But last night was different. Even the usually dull and predictable party-leaders’ post election debate – the so-called ‘elephants roundtable’ – was so much fun someone should sell it on DVD.
There was the continuously smug, press-bashing comeback-kid Schröder, arrogantly beaming to the extent that Arno Widmann wonders in the Berliner Zeitung if he was actually on drugs (English version courtesy of www.signandsight.com, they also have an English review of initial German press reactions). There was the blank stare on Angie Merkel’s suddenly even paler face when Schröder said he wouldn’t mind a grand coalition, just not with her. There was the overly angry F.D.P. chairman Guido Westerwelle, who had realized he would probably never become a minister, knowing that the odds of him still running the show in four years aren’t too good. What a contrast was the calm, almost stoic (inofficial) Green leader Joschka Fischer, probably the only one who got what he expected yesterday. There were Edmund Stoiber’s vain attempts to declare the political custom (normally a political imperative) of the biggest coalition forming group’s leader becoming Chancellor to be a constitutional reality.
It was a little like that moment in a club, when the bright light is turned on at the end of the night, and you can actually see what the people around look like. Exhausted, sweaty, trying to look as good as in the dark, but knowing it won’t work.
I attended most election headquarter parties after the 1994 and 1998 elections, when they still took place in Bonn. The tiny PDS (now Linkspartei.PDS) party in 1994 was the best; they offered great home-made noodle salad, while the F.D.P. served chicken wings in their car park. The Greens were too serious to celebrate, and too capitalist not to charge for the beer. At least the wine in the CDU’s “Adenauer-Stuben” was decent when the old man from Oggersheim was still Chancellor, while the pre-Schröder SPD never cared about catering anything non-red: never try eating blood-sausage by the spoon in the dark, expecting it to taste like mousse-au-chocolat. I wish it had been as exciting back then – I might have more interesting stories to tell than the recipes above.
Clearly, electoral systems aiming to proportionally represent the votes cast can, even with institutional safeguards like the German 5% threshold for Parliamentary representation, produce situations like the one Germany is experiencing right now. And, of course, it is far too early to predict if Oskar Lafontaine’s strategic move to unite the frustated West German loony left with the somewhat transformed, yet similarly frustrated, former East German ruling party will lastingly change the German party system. But their impressive showing at the polls, just as the Merkel’s/the CDU/CSU’s – largely self-inflicted – weakness shows on the one hand that German’s aren’t too afraid of experiments in general. Of course, it also shows that they are still apprehensive with respect to radical experiments with Germany’s institutional structure.
While the social discourse is advancing quickly, and this campaign has very likely led to an acceptance of the “Agenda 2010/Hartz IV” reforms as new status-quo, those who, like Andrea Seibel in today’s leading op-ed in the conservative Die Welt, are engaging in some kind of voter bashing and are still calling for a German Reagan or Thatcher, are not getting it: German voters have found a rather creative way of stating that, yes, they want change, and more change than was politically possible so far. But they do not want to risk social cohesion. Interestingly, about a year ago, Berkeley’s Beverly Crawford published her vision of Germany 2015, 9 years after Merkel took office, and she predicted that the biggest disappointment of a Merkel chancellorship would be Germany losing its social cohesion.
But just as so many, even within the parties proposing radical change, it seems that German voters are wary of transplanting something they have a hunch will not work properly in Germany. Thus, yesterday’s result is not a denial of reality of the need for economic reforms, it is a declaration of the people’s conviction that Ronald Coase was right when he claimed that institutions matter for economic results. Besides – appropriately – Germans have chosen their national election to make that point instead of a European constitutional referendum…
The political has indeed been returned to politics. And, interestingly, Gerhard Schröder may have succeeded in teaching his party the lesson that that governing is not something one simply throws away when it becomes unpleasant. If he gets through with this, and remains Chancellor, he might be an even smarter politician than he himself must believe. It would just be very sad for Angie.
We’ll find out soon.