Germany’s elections yesterday weren’t supposed to be a cliffhanger, but they started to look like one in the last weeks of campaigning. No one doubted that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union would come out with largest number of votes and the largest number of seats in the parliament. What was uncertain -- and remains unclear from the early results -- was the nature of the coalition she would need to work with.
The main drama of the last weeks was the slump of the small Free Democratic Party, which had been part of the governing coalition and which -- in a last-minute bid to stay in power -- tried to sell itself as essential to any Merkel success. Voters saw through the ploy, and instead believed what Merkel was saying: If Germans wanted a Merkel government, they needed to vote for her Christian Democrats, who received more than 41 percent of the vote.
The other drama -- which provided the cliffhanger -- was the rise of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany, which got about 4.8 percent. If this rather conservative, one issue group had made it past the 5 percent barrier to enter the legislature, Merkel would have been forced to embark on a complicated round of coalition negotiations: probably with the Social Democrats, who were easily in second place with only slightly more than a quarter of the votes, and also perhaps with the environmentalists (the Green Party, which also did poorly).
Germans found Merkel’s principal challenger, the Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck, unpleasantly direct and hectoring, as well as depressed and uncouth. The main contrast between the two candidates was style: unprecise and sometimes obfuscating language, but a charming smile and a kindly manner from the chancellor; sharp analysis and confrontational language, conveyed with the hint of a snarl from her challenger.
By giving the chancellor the biggest victory since Helmut Kohl’s post-reunification landslide in 1990, the election can be interpreted as an endorsement of Merkelism. It is likely that the Social Democrats will move quickly to replace Steinbrueck with Hannelore Kraft, the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who, like Merkel, is fundamentally nonideological and assembles coalitions on a pragmatic basis.
Merkel’s sweep fits perfectly with a deep German desire for consensus and peace. This moderation is the result of the deep traumas of German history, the memory of the profoundly fractured society that made democracy unworkable in the interwar years and that led to Adolf Hitler’s criminal dictatorship, as well as the 40 years of communist rule in East Germany. But the search for consensus -- and the need to elaborate firm rules that allows consensus to operate -- is also an outcome of a federal system that brings together substantial regional diversity. Merkel has an instinct for the fuzzy and nonideological politics that federalism requires.
There is a substantial disconnect between the outside view of the German elections and the way Germans themselves saw them.
To non-Germans, this was a plebiscite on how Europe would be governed and about the solutions for the European financial crisis. In particular, many of Germany’s European partners hoped the vote would clarify the extent to which a new government in Berlin might be prepared to countenance some measure of debt forgiveness or accept the idea of a fiscal transfer from the richest European nation to the debtor countries of the periphery.
Yet the European issue was barely discussed in the campaign. Only the fringe parties produced any substantive criticism of the euro and only on the last day of campaigning did Merkel try to address the anti-euro challenge from the Alternative for Germany.
This virtual silence caused dismay outside Germany. There were complaints that a de facto government of Europe was being elected, without any say from the non-Germans. Other Europeans attacked Merkel’s alleged “domination,” a common theme for Greek and Italian caricaturists who, for the last three years, have presented her as a modern incarnation of German angst, aggression and autocracy.
One of Steinbrueck’s many goofs was to suggest that Merkel didn’t understand Europe because she had been born and raised in East Germany. That statement was immediately pounced on by critics, including many Social Democrats, who rightly pointed out that under communism, many East Europeans had a vision of Europe that was much deeper and more idealistic than that of westerners, for whom the whole exercise was often cast as a matter of the material advantages from increased economic growth.
Yet the Steinbrueck interpretation has a measure of accuracy. One requirement for successful maneuvering in the complex political process of transforming communism into democracy was avoiding ideological polarization, and presenting problems as fundamentally soluble micro-issues. Merkel fully articulates the German aversion to the “vision thing.”
In giving her a clear mandate, Germans have also endorsed her view of politics as practical rather than visionary. She will now have to carry out that strategy not only in Germany but in Europe, where it will be a much harder sell.
(Harold James, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of “The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle” and “Making the European Monetary Union.”)
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