The victory party at Christian Democratic Union (CDU) headquarters ― the Konrad Adenauer Haus ― was euphoric after the first projections on the evening of September 22. Angela Merkel seemed to be on the verge of equaling the accomplishment of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1957 ― capturing an absolute majority for her party. That she missed that record by a razor’s edge did nothing to subtract from her electoral success.

Her electoral success ran parallel to the disastrous loss of her preferred coalition partner, the FDP, which was summarily dismissed from the Bundestag for the first time in its six and a half decades of continuous participation in government. It also opposed the relatively weak performance of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which lost even more ground to Merkel’s party. This election also saw the Green Party lose ground among voters. In fact, the only party which could justifiably celebrate on election night was the Left Party, which managed to become the third strongest presence in parliament. Meanwhile, a party, which did not qualify to sit in parliament, but impacted the results of the election ― the Alternative for Germany (AfD) ― picked up almost as much support as the FDP by mobilizing the uncertainty of the Germans worried about the euro.

Merkel’s magic consisted of convincing a record number of voters to give her a unique platform to govern Germany for a third term as Chancellor. For many, it was a gesture of trust in her leadership. For others, it was a lack of same in her opponent Peer Steinbrück. That lack of trust manifested in the results for the FDP as well as for the Greens and, in fact, even the sudden emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Yet, according to the polls, the majority of Germans want their beloved Chancellor to govern with the Social Democrats for the next four years. That is what will likely happen in a few weeks, when coalition negotiations come to an end. How that coalition will be shaped around competing interests and priorities will be the story of compromise and consensus. There are those on both sides of the negotiations who will clench their teeth in the process. As both the SPD and the FDP can attest, being a coalition partner with Merkel can end badly.

That would be equally true ― if not more so ― in negotiations between Merkel and the Greens, although that path is going to be a dead-end if for no other reason than the fact that Merkel will not have much of a Green leadership with whom she can negotiate.

And, here is where the limits of Merkel’s magic begins. The Chancellor needs a partner to govern and there are plenty of barriers to forging a sustainable coalition. This is certainly the case with the Greens, but also with the Social Democrats. Most of those sticking points are made of domestic politics ― taxes, minimum wage proposals, public investment policies, and a particularly abrasive set of issues surrounding energy policies. As far as euro issues go, it is possible that a coalition with the Social Democrats might push Merkel in the direction of increased support for the euro area, although the results for the AfD are a warning to Merkel that she needs to do a much better job of explaining her economic policies and, more specifically, how Germany has been able to profit from the euro zone initiative.

Of course, looking at the overall campaign, one is consistently reminded that the Chancellor’s style is one of caution and careful study before deciding her course. Her campaign posters showed only her hands in a peaceful position suggesting that the Republic is in good hands with Merkel.

The voters agreed in large numbers. But, that same style will shape her negotiations with the two coalition candidates. That can lead to a long discussion, perhaps longer than the last time Merkel negotiated with the SPD in 2005. That took over two months to hammer out. This time? It depends on how hard the SPD pushed its own agenda.

Is there another way out of this phase of building a coalition? In theory, a majority could coalesce if the SPD and the Greens agreed to invite the Left Party to join a coalition. However, Germany is not prepared for that combination yet. The Left Party needs to evolve further to make it a viable candidate ― if it ever does.

Throughout the campaign, issues that go further afield from Europe received virtually no attention. There was no discussion of Syria or Iran or other hot spots around the globe. All politics was primarily local. Germany continues to be an economic giant with limited strategic focus beyond Europe for now. This election did not change that. That is perhaps for another moment yet to come.

  • Rob Houck

    Germany wants to be Switzerland. But without a universal military obligation.

  • K Bledowski

    Germany has been blessed for the past 60+ years to elect leaders who focused on close-to-home economic stability. It takes a smart society to choose apt leaders. Oh, and causation runs only one way. Angela Merkel is but the last of a string of successful conservatives. All have been elected at crucial junctures in Germany history. The higher the perceived risk to the the status quo, the larger the spoils that the winner took. Germany is rightly the envy of the world. There are few examples of such a successful and peaceful transformation from rags to riches in such a short period of time.

    Rob Houck points to the absence of German foreign policy worthy of the country’s heft. True, but that has always been Germany’s choice. Ostpolitik, perhaps the country’s most notable foreign policy accomplishment, brought in meager returns in my book. On the other hand, splendid isolation has turned out to be a successful option for many a society across centuries, Switzerland included. It remains unclear just how long Germany can remain economically successful without playing a larger international role. But I wouldn’t condemn it just yet.
    Germany has left the world amazing riches in sciences and in arts. But it can still learn a thing or two from others. Three of these spring to my mind as topics worthy of public discourse now that the election is over.

    One, the political and economic establishment clings to faintly passé 19th century understanding of money and its role in the economy. Plenty of economic innovation forged in the past century has proved its test of time to warrant a look.

    Two, the Energiewende could benefit from a greater involvement of engineers, economists, and accountants and a lesser role left to politicians; a more realistic discount rate would also help in the equation. I sense too much religion and too little science here, too.

    Three, this religion-science disequilibrium also applies to the GMO debate. To listen to the chorus of conventional wisdom, all those German diplomats, expat executives, and visiting academics who spend years living on the western shore of the Atlantic and who gorge themselves on GM-infested American and Canadian food should either arrive back in Germany dead or deformed Frankensteins. On GMOs, the otherwise agnostic electorate appears more catholic than the Pope.