Blink, and you could almost have missed it: a six-week campaign that bored even the most committed of voters; a couple of potentially lively issues that never really took off – Germany's presence in Afghanistan, and recidivist youth crime after the killing of a "good samaritan" in Munich – and the return of a beaming Angela Merkel as Chancellor for another four years. That was the German election that was. As a quizzical local commentator wrote yesterday, even the usual immigration controversy failed to raise its head.
Yet the impression that it is back to business as usual is deceptive. While the reassuring Merkel brand remains in place, triumphantly confirmed, two significant things have changed. One is the complexion of the government. The other, no less significant, is the configuration of German – and perhaps European – politics.
The new government is likely to contain many familiar faces, and one of them will be the young Economics minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who ran a celebrity-style campaign and was rewarded with the biggest personal vote of any parliamentary candidate. But the departure from the coalition of the Social Democrats, and the arrival of the free-market FDP, turns the government around philosophically almost as sharply as if the previous government had been sent packing. In government, if not in the country as a whole, there has been a decisive turn to the right.
Some will see this as a reversion to German normality. The centre-right CDU-CSU governed in coalition with the FDP through much of the Cold War period and together managed German unification. But the Cold War is no more and neither is the Germany of those years. The SPD did so badly because, after four years in coalition, they were too far left for the West and south and not far left enough for the East and north. The Social Democrats' problem now translates into a problem for the new government, if it honours even a part of its election promises.
Assuming that it at least tries, Germans are going to see more emphasis on self-reliance, less direct tax on income and investments and probably – if the deficit is to be tackled – more indirect taxation. State assistance will go more to employers and entrepreneurs, as the presumed generators of jobs, and less to the state sector. The FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle – one of whose campaign slogans called for "achievement to be rewarded" – claims that he would be just as tough on banks and bonuses as Ms Merkel has tried to be.
How well any of this goes down in Germany will depend on the results. If business revives, jobs are created and the tax burden for average earners is lightened, Ms Merkel will be vindicated in her new choice of partner, and the centre-right elsewhere, including Britain, might start looking to Germany for answers.
If not, or if the results are too slow in coming, the backlash could be angry. With both CDU and FDP intent on staying in Afghanistan and neither averse to nuclear power – two of the most controversial issues during the campaign – it is not hard to predict where new battle lines might be drawn.
Sunday's election in Germany did more than change the character of the government, however. It crystallised certain trends in party politics that are not unique to Germany. Much was made of the "disastrous" showing by the SDP, which gave it the lowest share of the vote ever. But the centre-right alliance, especially the Bavarian CSU, hardly covered itself in glory, and would surely have done even worse without Ms Merkel's personal popularity.
Nor is it entirely correct to say that Germany, as a whole, swung decisively to the right. The country remains quite evenly balanced between right and left – a division that was obscured by the "grand" coalition of the past four years. What has changed – perhaps as a consequence of that coalition, perhaps not – is the way this division manifests itself. Losses by the two big parties were offset by the gains of the smaller parties; not only the FDP increased its vote, but the hard-left Linke and the Greens.
Germany now has two big parties in decline and three smaller ones on the rise – perhaps a five-party system in the making. Voters used their electoral system to return a range of distinct voices to parliament. In so doing, they demonstrated how well democracy can work – and how, increasingly perhaps, it will.Reuse content