Germany's civilised revolution

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THE DAY after the elections, Germans woke up to a world many never thought they would see. Overnight, for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, a government had been kicked out by the voters. In its wake came a creature most had only heard of from hearsay or horror stories told by parents: the Red-Green monster.

Apart from the increasingly eccentric writer Gunter Grass, no one had campaigned for this particular hybrid: 94 per cent of Germans thought the Greens were not government material.

A few tremors could be felt as the sun went down on Sunday, but there was no real warning of the earthquake to follow. The first exit polls predicted a six-point lead for the Social Democrats. But the little parties, including eastern Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism, were all heading for the Bundestag, threatening to gobble up Gerhard Schroder's majority. The early result had impasse written all over it.

It was not until 10pm that the gauges started going haywire. In the Oggersheim constituency near Ludwigshafen, a local named Helmut Kohl was about to lose to a young Social Democrat woman. In parts of the east, the Christian Democrats (CDU) were getting wiped out.

The analysts took a fresh look at their numbers, which were beginning to add up for the Social Democrats. It looked as though there might be a slim - and therefore unworkable - Red-Green majority. It stood at four at midnight, and crept up to eight by 3am. And then, with all the votes counted, there was a final adjustment: to keep the proportional system fair, the national electoral board hands out compensatory seats for parties that have not received their full share in the constituencies. This time, 13 such phantom seats were handed out. Every one of them went to the SPD.

And thus, on Monday morning, Red-Green had a majority of 21, and some Germans got ready to throw themselves off a cliff. "You may laugh, you don't have to live in this country," exclaimed a distraught CDU supporter. By Tuesday, reassured perhaps by observing no change in the autobahn traffic jams, she was more relaxed.

As were most of her compatriots. Of euphoria, there has been little evidence, but there has also been a shocking absence of shock.

The Greens, the older generation have grudgingly conceded, are no longer throwing Molotov cocktails and not all of them want to convert the motorways to bicycle-paths. After the fiascos of the early days, the Social Democrats have learnt to tame their Green colleagues in regions where they must govern together. The nuclear plants are still running and no army unit has been demobbed.

There is, of course, something very German about the enfants terribles of yesterday mutating into the custodians of a healthy democracy. According to a post-election poll, two-thirds of Germans were satisfied with the outcome. Thanks to the Greens, there is a majority. That means that the government can govern and that, in turn, produces what every German wants: stability.

There has not been an upheaval in western Germany since 1949, and there will not be one now. True, there will have to be some improvisation: this sort of thing has not happened in quite the same manner before. But the system is designed to be painless, and this is one of the small prices the taxpayers know they must pay. Mr Kohl, incidentally, will remain an MP. He had taken the precaution of putting his name on the party list.

Eat your heart out, Michael Portillo. The German way of losing power is so much more civilised. Which is probably why most Germans slept through it all on Sunday night.