Leading article: The centre of gravity has shifted to the right

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The Independent Online

Thus ends one of the less edifying chapters in recent German politics. Gerhard Schröder's refusal to concede defeat, even after the official results had given his Social Democrats fewer seats than Ms Merkel's centre-right alliance, was a disgraceful piece of gamesmanship. With neither of the major parties able to claim an overall majority, even in coalition with a traditional partner, Ms Merkel was entitled to try to form a government. It reflects poorly on Mr Schröder that he was so reluctant to acknowledge this. There was not a graceful way for so gifted a politician to bow out.

Mr Schröder's intransigence was one cause of the delay, but none of Germany's politicians can exactly be accused of undue haste. It is now more than three weeks since the election and formal talks on the new government programme are now expected to last four weeks. It will be mid-November before there is a new government in Berlin and Ms Merkel is sworn in to lead it. This is an unnecessarily long time for German policy to be in limbo. How this bargaining progresses, however, will say much about the likely durability of the new government. One thing, though, it has on its side. For all the difficulties in achieving it, the power-sharing arrangement reached yesterday is a reasonable representation of the votes Germans cast. An equal split of Cabinet posts, with Ms Merkel as Chancellor, gives her the chance to steer the government in a more reformist direction, while constraining her enthusiasm for out-and-out free-market solutions.

At worst, this "grand coalition" is a recipe for stagnation. Some traditional CDU and CSU voters defected to the free-market FDP in the hope of avoiding just such an outcome. And there are wide divergences in policy. It is hard to see how Ms Merkel's entrepreneurial and tax-cutting instincts can be reconciled with the social guarantees to which the SPD is committed. Ms Merkel's adamant opposition to Turkey's EU membership is also in direct contradiction to the SPD's embrace of Turkey's cause. At best, however, a "grand coalition" could presage the advance of economic and social reform at a pace the German consensus will tolerate. The success of individual German manufacturers and the country's relatively high rate of productivity (compared with Britain) mean that change need not be of the "shock therapy" variety. The big priority for Germany's next government must be jobs. And here, with a little give and take, the centre right and left could find common ground.

As Chancellor, Ms Merkel can be sure that it will be she, not her coalition partners, who will take the blame for failure. But failure is not inevitable. The patient determination she has shown since the election is evidence of her staying power. The success with which she negotiated the political currents of both East and united Germany suggests an operator of uncommon shrewdness. Even the economy may be on her side. German growth is showing a little improvement and the Schröder government's reforms could bring a reduction in joblessness before the end of the year. The inexorable laws of politics mean Ms Merkel would take the credit.

Chancellor Merkel may turn out a lame duck whose political life is short, or she may grow into Germany's Margaret Thatcher. German voters have given her the chance. It is now up to her to show what she can do.