The Blog

The Red and the Black

. . . and the Yellow and the Green and the Really, Really Red: Germany's parties scramble for power.

8:30 AM, Sep 14, 2005 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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A NEW BREEZE IS BLOWING. Or is it? After German chancellor Gerhard Schröder lost a vote of confidence for his ruling coalition, thereby dissolving the government and ushering in elections scheduled for September 18, early polls showed his opponent--Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats--holding a considerable lead. Schröder, meanwhile, along with his Social Democrats (the SPD), was polling between 26 and 27 percent. That was in June. According to yesterday's polls, the Christian Democrats (CDU) have slipped about 7 percentage points to roughly 42 percent. The SPD, on the other hand, has climbed to 33.5 percent--in no small measure because of the chancellor's well-polished performance in the election's one and only televised debate.

No one party, it now seems, is capable of running the government by itself. And so, as has been the case throughout most of modern German history, the dominant parties must each seek out a junior coalition partner. Schröder and the SPD have relied since 1998 on the Green party--which actually saved them in 2002 by increasing their votes while the Social Democrats plummeted. The Christian Democrats have depended largely on the pro-business Free Democratic party. In that last election three years ago, while the CDU rose in the polls, the FDP dropped, and Schröder was once again able to muster a narrow majority. What happens this coming election day--now only four days away--will depend on how just well those junior partners perform.

The latest polls show the FDP at 6.5 percent while the Greens hold steady at 7 percent. This gives Schröder's coalition a total of 40.5 percent whereas Frau Merkel's alliance is has 48.5 percent. It would seem that even with a narrowing of the numbers, a regime change is bound to occur. But this is not assured: Complicating matters is yet a fifth party, a splinter group from the SPD called the Left party, composed of disaffected Social Democrats and hard-core leftists from the East, including former members of the East German Communist party and members of the current (but minor) Communist party of Germany. They are polling even higher than the other junior parties, at 8 percent. Officials at both the CDU and SPD had earlier vowed not to forge a coalition including the new Left, but as the election nears, there is talk of the possibility of the Social Democrats uniting with them, despite the fact that this breakaway sect is led by Schröder's nemesis, Oskar Lafontaine.

If, on the other hand, the Christian Democrats maintain the lead but cannot count on the FDP, some analysts speculate Merkel will turn to her rivals in the SPD to form a "Black-Red" government known as a Grand Coalition. (Black is the color of the CDU, red the color of the SPD, yellow the FDP, the Greens are green, naturally, and the new Left is even more red than the Social Democrats.) But at a press conference this afternoon following a meeting with her campaign advisers, Merkel stressed that she was optimistisch that her one and only aim of achieving a Black-Yellow ruling coalition will be realized.

If Schröder's party manages to somehow stay in power, the 2005 snap election will be the story of the greatest political comeback in Germany. If not, history will still be made as the country makes way for its first female chancellor.

With Europe's largest economy undergoing radical economic reform and in need of more changes (and with unemployment hovering at 11.6 percent), Germany waits with bated breath for election day.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard. His visit to Germany is made by possible by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an affiliate of the Free Democratic Party.