Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Sep 26, 2005
Germany's new government Grand coalition or marriage of convenience?
Machiavelli wrote that if a man was really intent on doing good, he occasionally had to experience what it was to be bad, because a certain amount of evil is necessary to do a greater amount of good. Some of the manual's passages even read like The Godfather.
The struggles of Germany today are strikingly similar to Machiavellian ideology. The German elections are over and both the Chancellor, Mr Gerhard Schroeder, and his challenger, Ms Angela Merkel, are claiming victory. In reality, both fared miserably. Will it be a coalition of the losers?
A quick glance at Germany's election results will reveal that Ms Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the most votes a total of 35.2 per cent, to be precise. Chancellor Schroeder and his Social Democrats (SPD), on the other hand, only garnered 34.3 per cent of all votes cast.
She wins, he loses. Time to form a coalition government. But the political stage this autumn in Germany is a bit more complex. "Catastrophic" is the word to describe Ms Merkel's results.
In June, just after she was nominated the Union's candidate for the chancellery, surveys indicated that she had a shot at an absolute majority of over 50 per cent. That soon proved overly optimistic, but even in the days before last Sunday's election, no survey saw her receiving less than 40 per cent. But on election day, her result took a steep dive and will go down in history as one of the worst ever for the Union.
Mr Schroeder, by contrast, was a lame duck all summer. After calling for snap elections in May, virtually every pundit in the country assumed the Chancellor was rapidly heading for early retirement.
His result on Sunday, while still one of the worst in the history of his party, represents the SPD's high-water mark of support since its 38.5 per cent result in 2002.
Since that election, the party has had great trouble reaching the 30 per cent mark in popularity polls. So, naturally, both politicians are claiming the chancellery. What will the near future bring for Germany?
During the summer, many referred to the elections as being a key moment in the country's destiny. Now, it seems the country will be led by the weakest government in its post-War history. Reform, plans to reduce the country's huge unemployment problems, sleek budgets to combat rising national debt, all seem unlikely.
Germany's parliament has to convene by October 18 to elect a Chancellor. Between now and then, it's a safe bet that the country's political leadership will be leading talks the likes of which Germany has never before seen.
Two political heavyweights who have lost their heft will be circling each other for the privilege of becoming the head of an unwieldy coalition. According to Germany's constitution, the Federal President has the right to push forward a Chancellor candidate in parliament.
Generally, the President follows the advice of the parties negotiating a coalition government. But if all else fails, he could forward the strongest candidate or even dissolve parliament and call for new elections.
Under German law, this political tug of war can continue for a month without either candidate having to concede defeat. While that may not be good for democracy, goodwill or the political process, under Article 39 of Germany's constitution, it is legal.
On October 18, Mr Schroeder's term as Chancellor officially ends and that is when the clock will stop. In the best-case scenario, of the candidates will be able to knit together a coalition government by then. Otherwise, this sideshow could become a full-fledged political circus! Here's how.
Under the constitution, the President has no time limit for making his nomination. And as long as no successor has been elected, the current Chancellor would continue to hold office and conduct the Chancellor's business at the request of the President of parliament.
If all of the legal scenarios available in the constitution are played out, the political power vacuum in Berlin could last for months.
For many conservative southern German politicians, their greatest fear may now become a reality: The outcome of German elections may be decided in the East. Specifically, by one district in the city of Dresden.
Here, 219,000 voters have yet to vote and could very well bring Chancellor Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) into a dead heat with the opposition.
The delayed vote is scheduled to take place on October 2 and became necessary after a candidate running on the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) ticket died suddenly of a stroke while campaigning. In order to give her replacement candidate time to campaign, the election was put off by two weeks.
Now, with the results from the rest of the country resulting in a virtual stalemate, Dresden could make all the difference. The stage is set for a massive showdown, where candidates may go door to door in Dresden, battling for each crucial vote.
Going by the latest official results, CDU Chairwoman Ms Merkel does, in fact, have the razor-thin majority to serve as Chancellor in a grand coalition.
This has occurred once in German history in the 1960s and is credited with enacting a number of important reforms. Mathematically, it would also be possible for Ms Merkel to lead a three-party government with the FDP and Greens, which would enable her to become Germany's first female Chancellor.
Whether a new grand coalition will be able to accomplish similar reforms and revive Germany's ailing economy is uncertain, largely because it is unclear what either party's economic vision is.
The major parties try to hide the fact that they are devoid of a coherent vision on how to address Germany's looming problems: Highest post-war unemployment, highest wage levels, lowest working hours, unrealistic labour policies, slow growth, budget deficits, healthcare inflation, energy price shocks, lack of integration between the East and the West, integration of immigrants, and dramatic demographic changes as a result of having one of the lowest birth rates in the industrialised world.
Innovation, growth and ability to change are the three missing dimensions in Germany. However, the election results are likely to leave no choice but a `grand coalition', despite the fact that such a marriage of convenience may not be in Germany's best interests, as big clashes on key issues would predictably hamper decision-making.
A hung parliament is looking increasingly likely, which in turn might lead to new elections as early as next year.
A result Germans fear will bring gridlock. In this dismal scenario, there is no sense of urgency in most of Germany, that some things will now have to be done differently and that the old recipes may no longer work. In this sense, there is no resistance to change. There is national inertia. But don't underestimate the power of national fatigue and burnout.
With the EU in a deep identity and economic crisis, it is yet unclear what a weakened Germany could mean for the future of burning issues such as the Lisbon agenda, the Constitution or further enlargement.
Machiavelli's "Prince" has lasted as long as it has, not because it is a cynical work about power, but because it is an instructional guide for those who do not accept fatalism and determinism and need all the cunning at their disposal to overcome it.
Even if the intentions are somewhat cynical, if the political consequences lead to a greater good for a large number of people, some virtue is still attached to them. In other words, it is through self-interest that you shape and improve the world.
(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany. Feedback may be sent to email@example.com)
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