October 12, 2005

In America it would be called a stalemate, or a standoff, or gridlock. In Germany, when the voters can't give a clear sense of direction, they dress it up and call it a Grand Coalition. For three weeks following an election in which voters split down the middle with Germanic precision, party leaders bargained and politicked and postured like aggrieved soccer players trying to draw a phony foul, and now they have created a government that puts both major parties in power, to keep an eye on each other.

Angela Merkel, the new Christian Democratic chancellor who yearns to push through dramatic labor and welfare reforms, won't be steamrollering anyone, to the relief of the Social Democrats and a quiet but sizable portion of her own party as well. Her government will feature a fellow Christian Democrat as economics minister, for instance, but a rival Social Democrat as finance minister. Similar duos will be struggling to harmonize - or not - throughout the cabinet. Her own party will actually hold only six of the 14 ministerial posts.

In these elections Germany was supposed to be making a clear and perhaps irrevocable decision about the course of economic reforms at a time when the country is beset by stagnation, unemployment and the pressures of globalization - a decision, moreover, that was expected to be a signal to the rest of the European Union. Instead, the continent's wealthiest nation has a government that will at best be puttering around the garden, pruning here and weeding there. The rest of Europe, most likely, will choose for now not to step boldly into a globalized (some would say, Americanized) system of free trade - but neither will it turn dramatically back toward the welfare-state model.

The implications for the United States are significant. A dynamic Europe would be a partner and rival, both economically and politically, to be reckoned with. An uncertain Europe will hardly be pulling its own weight.

The German election results have put German politicians to the test - can they get together to run the country in a way that doesn't upset anyone? It sounds like a grand idea. It's hard not to suppose they'll fail in the end, sort of.

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