Who won in German election?
is an editorial writer for the German daily newspaper Tagesspiegel who was visiting The Inquirer as a fellow with the Arthur F. Burns journalist exchange program
At first glance, the big winner of the German election seems obvious. There she is in the spotlight: Angela Merkel, chancellor of the German republic. In the general election held last Sunday, her conservative party won 41.5 percent of the vote, up from 33.8 percent in 2009, failing to secure an absolute majority in parliament by a hair's breadth. Her political competitors are left on the track, eating her dust. The Social Democrats have been unable to recover from their historic defeat four years ago. The Green Party has suffered major losses. Even the small liberal party that helped form Merkel's previous coalition didn't make it into parliament this go-round.
At a second glance, however, the picture becomes blurry. In fact, due to the horrors and beauties of Germany's proportionate voting system, there doesn't seem to be a big winner.
In the United States, the winner is usually decided on election night, but in Germany, it ain't over when it's over. It takes weeks for winners and losers to emerge, as the terms and conditions of a new government coalition are negotiated. This, of course, leads to median positions and compromise - to the extent that voters' original intentions can be neglected or ignored.
Merkel's reelection, for example, could be read as expressing the electorate's wish to see her continue governing as she has for the last four years. However, since she has lost her coalition partner and failed to gain the absolute majority, she will have to form a government either with the Greens or the Social Democrats. Representatives of both parties were quick to initiate the poker game, implying either a complete unwillingness to negotiate or an intention to raise the stakes to a very costly level. Merkel will have to make great concessions to win either as a partner, thus disappointing the 41.5 percent of Germans who voted for the status quo.
At the same time, one could argue that 42.7 percent of voters rejected Merkel's conservatives. They opted instead for one of the three most important parties on the left, thus hoping for more progressive and distributive policies than what Merkel offers. However, the Greens and Social Democrats have refused to form a government with the third left-wing party, Die Linke (The Left). As a successor of the socialist party that ruled the former East Germany, Die Linke is still considered untouchable, at least on the federal level. But refusing to join forces could be seen as ignoring a portion of the electorate's wish.
Finally, this election has seen an unusually high number of votes cast for small parties that did not make it into the parliament at all. Fearing political fragmentation, the German founding fathers of 1949 created the so-called 5 percent barrier. Each party must gain at least 5 percent of the vote to earn seats in parliament. This year, about seven million of the 60 million Germans eligible to vote opted for parties that failed to meet that threshold.
Germany's electoral system has provided enormous political stability for more than 60 years. It is very likely then that by Oct. 22, the deadline set by the constitution to form a new government, a new governing coalition will be formed. It is also likely that, at least in comparison with the United States, the compromises that will be achieved in the process will serve as a much stickier glue to hold together society than the American winner-take-all electoral system could ever produce. It would be dangerous, however, to yield to arrogance and to forget the many Germans whose political wishes will be disappointed.