The Blog

Angela's Ashes

Merkel disappoints, Schröder defies, Free Democrats celebrate, and Germany plunges into chaos.

10:00 PM, Sep 18, 2005 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Berlin

"A VOTE AGAINST MERKEL IS A VOTE AGAINST BUSH!" screamed the underground posters along Unter den Linden, showing the photos of Merkel on one side and Bush on the other, with the word Kriegsverbrecher (war criminal) underneath the president. This made the Green party posters seem rather innocuous. One included a fist squeezing a tomato in protest against genetically modified foods. Another display involved a blurred threesome and a message about the right to privacy. (The Green poster attracting the most attention, however, showed a baby breast-feeding. Inevitably someone always managed to stick bubble gum in just the right location.) Nevertheless, the posters against "Angie" did not bode well.

Meanwhile at the Reichstag, tourists mulled around while the networks ran their election coverage. Everyone is surrounded by walls still bearing the graffiti of Red Army soldiers who stormed the building in 1945. Inside an FDP meeting room (complete with beer, wine, and wurst), supporters gathered anxiously to await the first exit polls at 6:00 P.M. When the moment of truth arrived, you could hear a pin drop:

The Social Democrats have 34 percent (silence). The CDU/CSU have just 35 percent (moans and groans). The Greens are at 8.5 percent (silence again). And the Free Democrats have 10.5 percent (applause, screams, bells, and whistles). The FDP certainly did have cause to rejoice. Their increase of between 2 and 3 percentage points gave them their biggest victory in decades.

As the dust settled a few hours later, the results were decidedly clear: The Social Democrats under Schröder declined to about 34.2 percent. The CDU/CSU declined as well to 35.2 percent. The Greens finished at 8.1 percent and the FDP ended with close to 10 percent. The new Left party surpassed the Greens with 8.6 percent.

So what does this mean? The Christian Democrats and their Christian Social brethren were expected to pull in at a minimum 40 percent of the vote. Not one single polling organization predicted they would dip below 39 percent. Keeping that assumption in mind, it seemed certain that if the FDP held its ground at 7 or 8 percent, a Black-Yellow coalition would have been possible. Now that that is no longer feasible, a number of nightmare scenarios have emerged:

The Grand Coalition. With a dominating majority, the CDU/CSU and the SPD would preside over a government (presumably) under Angela Merkel but with notions of Schröder's Agenda 2010 still in mind. The result, as many analysts fear, would only be stagnation. On the other hand, with Merkel at the helm, Schröder would have no choice but to retire. After the first poll numbers were released, SPD chairman Franz Müntefering described the results as "a personal defeat for Merkel" and called it "a super success for Gerhard Schröder and social democracy." Müntefering also noted that his party was still unlikely to join up with the far left in a Red-Green-Red coalition, cooperation was going to be needed, and they were ready to sit down at the table. When Merkel addressed her own supporters, she first emphasized the need for "a stable government"--yet another hint that a Grand Coalition is in the works.

Red-Green-Red. At a roundtable discussion later in the evening, Chancellor Schröder seemed to contradict his party chairman by telling the television hosts he still had a majority--which he would only have in an alliance with the Greens and the far left--and that Germans clearly want him to be their chancellor. Though his party did lose seats and are now trailing the CDU/CSU, he was quick to point out: "Sure we lost and it breaks my heart. But I believe your network predicted 40 percent for the opposition. The SPD came back from 26 percent to 34 percent in just a few weeks and for that I am most proud of my party." Yet economically, socially, and politically, Red-Green-Red would prove disastrous as the government would lurch even farther left, incorporating the ideas of a socialist partner. At the same time, Schröder will need to keep in mind that all legislation must be approved by the chamber known as the Bundesrat, controlled by the CDU/CSU/FDP alliance for the next two years.