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Victory Deflated, Delayed, DebunkedChancellor-Designate Angela Merkel promised Germans "A New Beginning." Photo by Professor Christian Soe.

Victory Deflated, Delayed, Debunked

Indecisive German elections spark questions at UCLA. What happened to Merkel's lead? Why can't anyone team with the Left? Did Germans bring the grand coalition on themselves?

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

The post-war German social model is simply not sustainable. —Professor Ronald Rogowski

The chancellorship of Germany will pass this November from a center-left male politician seen by Germans as a "winner type" to a center-right female physicist who, as Professor Christian Soe charitably put it, "may have difficulty doing what comes naturally to Schroeder: identifying with an audience, speaking to its feelings and fears."

After observing the indecisive Sept. 18 contest between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Soe, a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach, spoke Oct. 14 at an event sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies.

So, what shift in German political attitudes led to the change in leadership?

None at all, answered UCLA Associate Professor Kathleen Bawn at a second campus event devoted to the indecisive elections: an Oct. 24 panel discussion sponsored by the UCLA Department of Political Science. If anything, Bawn pointed out, the German electorate moved slightly to the political left. A new party known as the Left (die Linke), formed in 2005 with members of the former East Germany's ruling Communist party and dissidents from the SPD, won nearly nine percent of the second-ballot vote.

Germans elect half of the members of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, directly in a first ballot. The second vote, much more important for smaller parties, determines the total number of seats each party holds in the body. The Left more than doubled the share of votes won by its predecessor in 2002, the last election, and easily cleared the five-percent hurdle required for Bundestag representation.

Largely because of the strength of the Left, which had been ruled out as a coalition partner by all major parties, neither the current government of the SPD and environmentalist Greens nor the alliance of the CDU and the economically conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP) won enough votes to form a new government.

Also leading to the mixed result was a slide in support for Merkel's CDU that, Bawn said, began in the summer. Soe attributed the declining support to fears that the "New Beginning" promised by the reformist Merkel would be too abrupt. Her strong calls for changes in the labor market and tax structure "managed to scare people," he said.

Soe pointed out that a bare majority of Germans, 51 percent, favored "change" prior to the election. Before the last power shift, the 1998 defeat of the CDU and long-time Chancellor Helmut Kohl, 64 percent had said it was time for change.

The margin separating the two major parties was similarly narrow. After the completion of a delayed vote in Dresden, the CDU and its close ally in Bavaria won just four seats more than the SPD in a 614-member Bundestag.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Professor Ronald Rogowski, Interim Vice Provost and Dean of the UCLA International Institute, gave a short presentation for the panel that set the German elections in the context of the country's long-term political and economic challenges.

Showing data on the total hourly costs of employing workers across Europe, Rogowski argued that Germany is increasingly unable to compete in international labor markets, which exert their strongest pressure within economically unified Europe. Considered separately, West Germany has the third-highest labor costs on the continent, several times those of new European Union member-states to the east.

Rogowski led off with the broader claim that "the post-war German social model is simply not sustainable." Workers there have increasingly high wages and ever shorter hours, highly specialized skills, powerful unions, and generous unemployment benefits that ultimately discourage some from working.

According to Soe's numbers, a whopping 85 percent of Germans considered unemployment, measured at 11.5 percent, to be the most important issue in the election. Unemployment is far higher in the East.

In Germany, Rogowski suggested, the pressure for economic reform is very high, but institutions, including the powerful states in Germany's U.S.-imposed federal system, are well positioned to resist reforms. One result is that Schroeder moved somewhat to the right in economic policy during his tenure, then shifted rhetorically leftward during the electoral campaign.

The Jamaican Candidate

Other participants in the Oct. 24 panel discussion were political science graduate students Sven-Oliver Proksch and Jonathan Slapin. As an entry to the subject of post-election negotiations, they presented results of an analysis of the five major parties' published manifestos.

By treating the manifestos "as data," Proksch said, the two plotted party positions on a two-dimensional graph showing the distances between parties on both societal and economic issues. The manifestos were measured against statements at extremes of German political discourse.

Proksch and Slapin's graph summed up visually the difficulties of forming certain of the governing coalitions under discussion in the weeks between elections and the Oct. 10 compromise making Merkel chancellor. Under the deal, the SPD and the CDU divided cabinet portfolios evenly, though Proksch and Slapin noted that the SPD will command a much larger share of the national budget.

A proposed "traffic light" coalition that would have united the SPD and Greens with economic conservatives in the FDP failed to materialize, conceivably because of the prominence of economic issues in the campaign. The "traffic light" moniker owes to the color-coding of German political parties.

The colors of the Jamaican flag (black, yellow, green) were present in a proposed CDU–FDP–Green "Jamaica coalition." Proksch said that negotiations broke down very quickly. The CDU and the Greens are deeply divided on welfare reform and an array of social issues.

According to the graduate students' visual aid, the grand coalition was finally the least painful bargain to be struck—with one exception. But the "Red-Red-Green" alliance of the three left-leaning parties was not to be. The Left received a full quarter of the second-ballot vote in the East but had nearly no support in the West, where its vote totals barely exceeded those of about 20 obscure parties. Even though Merkel will be the first easterner to lead Germany since reunification, her rise might be seen as coming at the expense of the East and its political clout.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies