Leading Article: Don't deride a grand coalition in Germany

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The Independent Culture
AND THE winner is... well, everyone. Against every early indication, tomorrow's German election has turned into a cliffhanger. Conceivably, Helmut Kohl could complete an extraordinary political comeback and win a fifth consecutive mandate for the centre-right. Marginally more probable, according to the opinion polls, is a Red-Green coalition led by Gerhard Schroder, Germany's somewhat unconvincing version of Tony Blair. But the most probable outcome, and the one expected by most Germans themselves, is the "elephants' marriage", of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats ruling jointly in a grand coalition, with the chancellor provided by whichever of Germany's two dominant parties emerges with the most seats. The only losers would be the small parties and the fringes - Free Democrats, Greens, the far right and the former Communists in East Germany - incapable of mounting any serious opposition in the Bundestag to the CDU-SPD juggernaut.

At which point, in Britain, some will say: "I told you so". Once again, proportional representation will stand accused of failing to deliver the strong one-party government needed, as the cliche has it, to "take the tough decisions". They will warn of paralysis, and of the danger of encouraging the political extremes, by making the small parties feel left out in the cold. In fact, however, a grand coalition may be precisely what Germany now needs to take some exceptionally tough decisions. Whoever becomes chancellor must embark on a massive updating of the long-admired but increasingly ossified German model. Reforms to improve tax incentives and labour-market flexibility, and to scale back hugely expensive pensions and welfare benefits, can be put off no longer.

Never forget, however, that Germany - for reasons we all know - likes its politics steady and predictable, where change is gradual and consensus is everything. That is why no postwar chancellor has ever been directly voted out of office at an election; and why, to the abhorrence of first- past-the-posters, the balance of power has mostly been held by the Free Democrats, shifting their allegiance between the CDU and the SPD. Yet the changes required now will perforce cause pain and division. Much better that the reforms come with the backing of both left and right.

Moreover, neither side deserves to win outright. The old warhorse, Helmut Kohl, may have been lately galvanised by the scent of a last, improbable victory. But 16 years in power is already too long - and Dr Kohl insists he will not head a grand coalition, even if his CDU win the most seats. That task would fall to his designated heir, Wolfgang Schauble, Germany's most popular politician. But beyond the slick Blairite trappings of their campaign, the Social Democrats, too, have hardly shone as they lurch between Old Labour and New Labour.

Unlike Mr Blair, Mr Schroder has failed to truly modernise his party. He is still regarded as something of a frontman for Oskar Lafontaine, the hard man of the old Social Democrats. Like Labour in 1987 and 1992, the SPD is not ready for power alone. Germany has already experienced one grand coalition, between 1966 and 1969, which formed a bridge between 17 years of Christian Democrat rule and the 13 years of SPD-led Government which followed. A grand coalition of 1998 could perform a similar role now.