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Angela Merkel

Counting has almost finished in the German federal election (the official progress results are here, and most of the questions about the vote have been answered. We’ve even got a fair idea of what will happen next.

If winning an election means coming first (and there’s a strong cultural prejudice to that effect, although it sometimes makes a nonsense of coalition politics), the Christian Democrats (CDU) have done very well indeed, returning to something like their glory days of the 1990s. Early results suggested they would even enjoy an absolute majority, but that hope has faded during the night. (As will become clear, that fact isn’t as important as you might think.)

Although Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t have a majority, she’s come very close: 301 out of 606 on Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen’s projection (ZDF is Germany’s public TV broadcaster) as of 8am eastern Australian time, with a swing towards her of about 8%. There will be no real attempt to put together a majority without her. Pundits are virtually unanimous that the outcome will be a grand coalition in which the Social Democrats (SPD) (which have also increased their vote, albeit off an appallingly low base) will support Merkel in return for participation in government, although it may take some hard negotiations to get to that point.

What’s more interesting is that the Social Democrats seem to have conceded the point in advance, before the strength of Merkel’s position was known. Opposition Leader Peer Steinbruck made it clear that he wasn’t willing to include the Left in government, and since there was never much chance that the SPD and Greens alone would outvote the Christian Democrats, his hands were pretty much tied.

Grand coalitions are popular with a certain class of commentator; Der Spiegel, for example, reports: “Many of Germany’s European partners regard a third term for Merkel with the SPD as her coalition partner as the best possible outcome.” But if they become a habit they are deeply subversive of democracy, since voters no longer get a real choice. The key to democracy is the ability to vote a government out. But if its main opponents — the only ones who could offer an alternative government — are always up for a grand coalition, then that option has in practice disappeared.

This time the dynamic is different from Merkel’s previous grand coalition, in 2005-09; on that occasion the Social Democrats had staged a major comeback to deny the CDU a majority. But it still worked to Merkel’s benefit, and in 2009 she was able to hand the SPD its worst defeat since the war. Given the strong showing of the CDU this time it’s easy to see that being repeated next time around.

The obvious comparison is with Italy, Europe’s other big election this year. In each case, what looked like a working two-party system was frustrated by a party that no one wanted to deal with holding the balance of power: Beppe Grillo’s populist movement in Italy, and the post-communist Left in Germany. In each case the centre-left has been made to look as if it were progressively throwing away its cards, which is never a good look.

The one consolation for the SPD is that if the right-wing eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany continues to grow, it will pose the same sort of headache for the centre-right that the Left now poses for the centre-left. Early in the count it looked as if the eurosceptics might reach the 5% threshold; that didn’t eventuate, but their 4.7% is still very impressive. So far there is no sign of other parties treating them as potential partners, but that may change; we’ve seen many times how quickly extremism can become mainstream.

Although the voters of Germany have not been able to effect a change of government, they have certainly made their voices heard in one major respect, by evicting the Free Democratic Party from parliament. From its best result of 14.6% in 2009, the FDP has lost more than two-thirds of its voters and is now jostling for fifth place with the eurosceptics. Other liberal parties, including particularly the Liberal Democrats in Britain, will be looking on in horror.

It appears that the FDP is paying the price for being too harmonious a coalition partner. By choosing to emphasise the pro-business side of its agenda it minimised its differences with the CDU. But if there’s no difference between parties in a coalition, there’s no reason for voters not to flock to the larger one, to reduce the risk of instability. Clearly the policies themselves had substantial popular support, but many voters failed to see any need to preserve the FDP as a separate force.

It’s likely that there will now be some softening of the government’s austerity position (although that was probably on the way in any case), and with the SPD on board Germany may be able to repair its damaged relations with the Mediterranean countries.

But the SPD should now have well and truly learned the lesson that Greece and others were also taught: not to underestimate Angela Merkel.

Peter Fray

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