Messy election finally resolved

An election that occurred four weeks ago is also still grabbing headlines. The question of who will emerge as new chancellor following the German general election has been settled – and it’s a woman – but the terms under which the new “grand coalition” will operate still have to be reached.

The election managed to prove that democracy can be messy and take time, but it works as long as all parties involved are committed to it.

The long trek toward a new government started in May when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), lost a regional election in Germany’s most populated state, North Rhine Westphalia (NRW).

The left-leaning SPD has always received solid support from NRW, as the area includes many industrial areas and accounts for nearly a fifth of Germany’s gross domestic product. This time, the result was disastrous for the SPD. It only garnered 37.1 percent of the vote, the party’s worst result in the area in 50 years. Unpopular economic reforms that cut social benefits to make them economically feasible were blamed. The cuts had been aimed at lowering the nation’s unemployment figures and making its budget feasible, but all fallout was directed squarely at Schröder’s leadership and voters in NRW used the election to send a message.

The effect was a weakened government. Schröder lost public support and announced he could no longer govern effectively. What followed was bizarre: The chancellor told his own party to call for a vote of no confidence and vote against him to oust himself. This, so Schröder hoped, would allow for an early election to be called and solidify his support by being re-elected chancellor.

Elections were called on Sept. 18 even though a general election had originally not been planned for another year. Before the official date was set, though, an arduous summer passed in which no one in Germany knew for sure if such an early election would even occur, as its constitutionality was questioned. For most of the summer, politicians were campaigning for an election they weren’t even sure would happen.

When the final word came that the election would proceed, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led the polls. The CDU’s Angela Merkel was poised to take the chancellorship away from Schröder, but that was well before the CDU managed to start hemorrhaging support because of tactical mistakes.

Incidents included Edmund Stoiber, who was to be a member of a CDU-led government, speaking at a small voter rally in Bavaria. He ridiculed people in “the East” as “being frustrated” and said, “not everyone can be as smart as Bavarians.” Naturally, this did not help the CDU’s already weak standings in the East and hurt the party’s results nationwide.

Further confusing voters was the call by the otherwise conservative CDU to raise taxes while the liberal SPD vowed not to do so. But the main problem Merkel had was that her party had agreed to the reforms that made Schröder so unpopular. Her party was now forced to campaign against reforms that it had backed only months before and voters weren’t buying it.

The traditionally large parties, SPD and CDU, both lost support. Votes instead went to the Green Party (up to this point the SPD had been governing in a coalition with the Greens), the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the strategically renamed Left Party (PDS).

Election day ended with neither the SPD (34.2 percent) nor the CDU (35.2 percent) able or willing to form a coalition with one of the smaller parties and both parties claiming to have the right to name the chancellor.

Last Monday, though, Merkel finally emerged as new chancellor when the SPD agreed to form a “grand coalition” with the CDU, bringing an end to a stalemate that had been widely ridiculed. Today the remaining cabinet posts will be announced and are to include both members from the SPD as well as the CDU.

Even though the election was unconventional and took longer than usual, not all is bad news. The election saw no extremist party move into parliament and no tie-breaking decision by the nation’s supreme court was needed.

But most importantly, the party’s top candidates could not have been more eclectic, yet representative: They included a man living in his fourth marriage (Schröder), a woman (Merkel), an openly gay man (Guido Westerwelle, FDP) and a strict pacifist and environmentalist (Joschka Fischer, Green Party). All of these candidates have now agreed to form a government that solves the nation’s problems instead of blocking each other’s agendas.

With candidates such as these, Germany’s democratic future is in good hands. And who wouldn’t want to wait for a few weeks if they could have that in return?

Sebastian Meyer is a former Oracle Opinion Editor and a senior majoring in geography.