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The Best of Times, the Wurst of Times

Trying to make sense of the German elections while eating pretzels and drinking beer.

12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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I REMEMBER the last election party I attended, two years ago. It was at the home of a colleague. When news came that Florida went to Gore, I knew it was over and asked the host (a serious mixologist) to fix me one of his classic martinis. But suddenly, news came that Florida had swung back to Bush. Well, then, another drink was in order. A little later, Florida went back in the undecided column. Make it another martini. The next morning I awoke to find the election was still unresolved. (No, I did not have another drink.)

This past Sunday I found myself at yet another election party where no one knew who the winner would be and everyone said it would go down to the wire. But it wasn't a U.S. election--it was the Bundestag elections in Germany, and the party was at the German embassy. The auditorium was packed with journalists, diplomats, and other "friends of the German-American community." Screens were tuned to the Deutsche Welle network, which broadcast live, in German. More important, two kinds of beer were served: One of them, Jever (from Friesland), came in bottles. But the second beer came in kegs--Bitburger flown in direct from Germany. The crisp taste is unmistakable.

Waiters walked about with trays of food which disappeared quickly in the sea of hungry guests. There were three kinds of sliced wurst that you could dip in a bold, dark mustard. I also sampled what looked at first to be a blackened mushroom wrapped in bacon. (It was actually a prune in bacon and the one sample was enough.) The freshly baked pretzels were extremely popular--warm to the touch and a Bitburger's best friend. A pugnacious Hungarian woman was carving away at the smoked salmon, placing them atop baguette slices. One waiter walked out with a tray of shrimp and never made it back--by sheer coincidence I was standing by the door where he entered.

But in spite of all the food and drink, guests were focused primarily on the televisions, waiting for noon (EST) when the first results would arrive. Even if you didn't speak German, the prognosticators all kept saying two words that needed no translation: "photo finish." At 12:00 p.m., right on time, the first numbers came in: The Social Democrats had 37 percent, the Christian Democrats 39 percent, the Greens 9 percent, and the Free Democrats 7 percent. There followed much clatter but no outright cheering. Remembering Florida's "early returns," I wasn't about to assume that the conservative chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber was on his way to Berlin just yet.

(Of course, Germans don't directly elect their chancellor. They vote for local district representatives and for a political party. The party then sends its members to the Bundestag and they in turn decide who will be the next chancellor, usually by forming coalitions, with a minimum of 301 seats out of 603 needed--though the number of seats fluctuates from one legislative session to the next.)

The current ruling coalition consists of the dominant Social Democrats (SPD) and their minority partner, the Greens. Together they installed Gerhard Schroeder into office. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were hoping to unseat Schroeder with the help of a former partner, the Free Democrats (FDP). Early indications showed that the CDU had made impressive gains over the last four years while the SPD lost votes. But the FDP, who the Christian Democrats needed in order to form a coalition, had also lost votes. Still, many in attendance at the embassy were certain that, unlike in the United States, the numbers were not going to change all that much in the final days and Edmund Stoiber would most likely win.

Indeed, at 12:50 p.m., Stoiber emerged on the television, along with Angela Merkel, head of the CDU. He looked exultant and spoke about how Germany had made its choice--the right choice--and then he profusely thanked all of his supporters. Yet the numbers continued to decline ever so slightly for the CDU, while the SPD's totals slowly ticked upwards. Half an hour later, the Christian Democrats slipped to 38.9 percent while the Social Democrats rose to 38.1. The FDP was still middling around 7 percent. Another tally showed the CDU/FDP maintaining a hold in the Bundestag--by a mere 5 seats. Later, the hopeful coalition slipped to 297 seats, 4 under the required minimum. (I began to wonder if I could get a martini here.)