A little over a week ago, observers on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the political spectrum were calling September 18 a crossroads for Germany: Either Germany would choose the path of free-market reform or continue down the path of status-quo statism. But the observers were wrong. Rather than giving Angela Merkel a mandate to change course or Gerhard Schroeder a mandate to stay the course, the German electorate simply froze in the middle of the intersection. And that’s a dangerous place to be, as anyone who has tried to cross a busy Berlin street knows.
Germany’s political leaders have 30 days to seat a parliament and make sense of this election. But even after they do that, the haze of September 18 will linger. Whether they create a grand coalition or a rainbow patchwork of parties, the result will be the same: an unwieldy and unworkable hybrid that can’t deliver the reforms Germany needs.
As a result of this election with no mandate and no majority, no one can claim victory (though virtually every party has tried to do just that), and no one will concede defeat. Merkel’s Christian Democrats edged past Schroeder’s Social Democrats. But neither of these centrist parties garnered enough support to claim a majority. With the Greens losing ground to the far left, Schroeder lost his pre-election majority. And although the market-friendly Free Democrats earned their highest vote tally ever, it wasn’t high enough to boost the CDU into its own majority coalition.
In short, the splintered German electorate decided not to go left or right, backward or forward. Or perhaps better said, German voters tried to go both left and right, backward and forward, by following the advice of that American sage Yogi Berra, who famously counseled, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Yet the post-election postmortem brings more worries than laughter. On the political front, it is evident now more than ever that Germans may talk about wanting reform but they do not want to endure the change needed to bring about reform. For a majority of Germans change represents not an opportunity but a threat—and it’s enough to paralyze a country. To choose the path of reform is to take a risk on the unknown, a frightening prospect for many Germans. It’s frightening because Germany has lost its confidence, its sense that tomorrow can be better than today.
Quite simply, and sadly, most Germans no longer believe they control their own destiny. As a Pew survey found, 68 percent of Germans say success is determined by forces outside their control. Indeed, both before and after this election with no losers and no winners, I have been struck by the gloomy, even fatalistic attitude prevalent in Germany. Faith in God, or at least faith in the church, faded away in the postwar decades. Faith in the economy evaporated after the euphoria and cost of reunification. And now, faith in the state and its politicians is at an all-time low (as evidenced by the election results).
With no leader, no mandate to lead, no direction, Germany will continue to flat-line on the economic front. Unemployment will continue to float in the double-digit range. Corporations (and their workers and revenues) will continue to drift to Eastern Europe and beyond. And nearly half of the German population will stay out of the workforce.
On the international front, Germany’s political paralysis will have consequences as well. The United States and European Union need Germany to help fuel the global economy. As European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso puts it, “without a dynamic Germany, Europe cannot recover.”
Likewise, without a “transatlantic Germany,” the transatlantic community cannot recover from the disagreements over Iraq or go forward in unity. Washington needs Germany to return to its historic postwar position as transatlantic partner. From the War on Terror to nuclear proliferation to international arms sales, Germany and the U.S. can achieve much more working together than we ever could in separate camps.
As the election approached, I made sure to ask every German I encountered—shopkeepers and taxi-drivers, hotel clerks and corporate leaders—the same question: “Who is going to win the election?” Surprisingly, they all gave me the same answer: “Nobody.” And they were right. Nobody wins until Germany takes a risk and moves beyond this intersection.
Dan Coats served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 2001-2005 and U.S. Senator from 1989-1999.