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Stillstand in Deutschland

From the October 3, 2005 issue: German voters choose stalemate.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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JUST BEFORE THE CHRISTIAN DEMOCRAT LEADER Angela Merkel took the stage to address her party's disappointment in Germany's national elections last Sunday, a few young yahoos started chanting her name: "An-gie! An-gie! An-gie!" Soon they had the whole room going. Choreographed enthusiasm is something new in postwar German politics. To most people, it looks like mimicry of an American custom. To Merkel, the daughter of an evangelical pastor who spent her first 35 years in Communist East Germany, it must have looked like something worse. Merkel scanned the crowd and curled her lip into a joyless expression conveying: Are you through?

She had plenty to be joyless about. True, Gerhard Schröder's ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens had been voted out after seven years in power. True, with 35 percent, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (including its Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union) was Germany's largest party. It thus had the first claim to try to form a government. But the CDU had lost dozens of seats. It had been less soundly repudiated than the SPD, but only by a hair's breadth. For the first time since World War II, both big parties were under 40 percent--and they were way under 40 percent. That Merkel would lead the new government was by no means clear. As the evening wore on, Schröder had the effrontery to suggest that he lead it himself.

Only weeks before, Merkel had enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls and had been cast as the Margaret Thatcher of her generation. Now she had blown an unblowable election. As we go to press, the German parties are deadlocked and unable to form a government, with no consensus on whether to proceed on a course of state reform or to stop it. And an unstable Germany is a crisis not just for a country but a continent.

Between Slovakia and Egypt

WHAT MADE THE ELECTION look like a safe win for the CDU opposition was the steadily worsening quality of life for median Germans. The main problem was that 11 percent of them (19 percent in Berlin) had no jobs. In February, unemployment rose to over 5 million people. That was a record high, but the jobless rate has been in or near double digits since the mid-1990s. Starting with Thatcher's Britain, almost all European countries have fought unemployment through deep and sometimes painful reforms. A quarter-century later, Germany--along with France and Italy--is still holding out.

But Germany has also spent 1.4 trillion euros to rebuild the former East Germany. As the state goes broke, its reputation for high-quality social services wanes. The country had its Sputnik moment in 2003, when the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the German education system near rock-bottom of 32 developed countries surveyed. To add to the problem, Germans are having children at half the rate they were when the socialist state was built up in the 1950s and 1960s. Since pensions and health care, the most expensive parts of the social system, are pay-as-you-go, battles over the role of the state increasingly pit the old against the young.

Schröder is a campaigning genius. His poll numbers have been at historic lows for most of his seven years in power, except for a few weeks of campaigning in 2002, when he engineered a frenzy of outrage over the impending Iraq war, and won reelection by the narrowest of margins. Non-geniuses in his party have fared less well. After 2002, the SPD lost an unbroken string of state elections. That left 11 of the 16 German states under Christian Democrat-led governments, which can block Schröder's programs in the Bundesrat, the upper house. The breaking point came in May, when the Social Democrats were roundly defeated in North Rhine-Westphalia, the gigantic state around Cologne. If you could double the weight of California in American politics, you would get an idea of North Rhine-Westphalia's importance in Germany's. If you could double the average margin of victory for Democrats in California, you would get an idea of its solidity as an SPD stronghold. After the loss, Schröder asked his own party to pass a vote of no confidence against him, so he could call early elections. At this point, Merkel was outpolling him on all issues except two: foreign policy, which is German for Iraq, and "social justice," which is German for welfare.