Which on the Rhine?

September 20, 2005

The dramatically inconclusive results of Germany's election show that voters there are deeply dissatisfied and not at all keen on doing anything about it. Dietmar Nietan, a maverick Social Democratic member of the Bundestag from the far-western city of Dueren, summed up German feelings, particularly about the stagnant economy, this way before the election: "Of course we need hard reforms, structural reforms - but don't start with my case."

Both of the two major parties, the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union, claimed victory Sunday evening, even though both did worse than they had the last time around. The CDU edged its rival by 1 percentage point, and by three seats in the new parliament, but is clearly the real loser, in part because it was far ahead in opinion surveys just 10 days ago. When the leaders of all the parties gathered for a traditional TV show (dubbed the Elephants' Roundtable) after the polls closed, the CDU leader, Angela Merkel, looked stricken, while her rival, Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, seemed to be having the time of his life.

Mrs. Merkel had been advocating significant labor, welfare and tax reforms, though it was quite clear that her party was not at all united behind her. Even if the CDU does assume power in a coalition, the fundamental restructuring that she had been talking about is now a dead letter. Mr. Schroeder promises to keep tinkering with the system - but even though he beat expectations, he still got only a third of all votes, which is hardly an endorsement.

Serious dickering lies ahead. To form a governing majority in the parliament, one of the big parties will have to find unlikely common ground with the laissez-faire Free Democrats, who did well but still got only about 10 percent, and the Greens, who came in at 8 percent - because nobody is willing to talk with the uncompromising Left Party, which improved to 9 percent.

Because each German party is associated with a color, people are dubbing these possible three-way coalitions as the traffic light option or the Jamaica option, because the Jamaican flag is green, black and yellow. Failing either of those coalitions, the Social Democrats and CDU will be forced into a Grand (and balky) Coalition together. It probably won't happen before delayed voting in Dresden on Oct. 2, which could affect several seats.

Germany is in for a period of mild action, in any case. No strong signal has been sent to the rest of Europe about the direction of economic reform. Foreign policy (namely, relations with the United States) played only a minor role in the campaign. German voters are uneasy about big budget deficits and 11 percent unemployment, but they shied away from doing anything dramatic.

And what of Mr. Nietan, the Social Democrat who put his finger on the problem so succinctly? When the results came in Sunday night, he learned that he, too, is now out of a job.

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