- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

BERLIN. — The Sept. 18 German elections left political leaders arguing over who will be in charge in Berlin. But Germany is by no means in crisis. In fact, it may be on a path toward doing exactly what is needed.

The German voters seem slightly amused by the predicament they have served up to their political leaders. Neither Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder nor his challenger Angela Merkel got enough support to form their preferred coalitions. Now their respective political camps face the challenge of forming a coalition with each other.

Despite a serious setback in her party’s election results, Mrs. Merkel has a good chance of becoming chancellor. But with only a three-vote margin over the Social Democrats in Parliament, her Christian Democratic Union faces tense negotiations, which could generate either an effective coalition or gridlock.

As of now, voters are waiting to see what their leaders come up with. In a month or more, the public might become more impatient if party officials fail to deliver. The longer it takes, the greater will be the push to replace both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Schroeder with other party leaders to assemble the coalition.

While Mr. Schroeder’s departure is expected, Mrs. Merkel’s fate depends on maintaining her own party’s support in the challenging period ahead. This current poker game between the CDU/Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) requires that political leaders think beyond their own ambitions and the system that feeds them.

The battle for power in Berlin is the usual story of party politics. Germany’s postwar history is about limited change within coalitions among a small group of political parties with an emphasis on consensus. In the last 55 years, four of seven German chancellors have been from the CDU and the other three have come from the SPD.

Yet this system needs renewal. The consensus has begun buckling as a less predictable electorate copes with uncomfortable adjustments to lives, budgets and expectations. The larger political parties lack a strong hold on the electorate; the smaller parties are gaining strength. The coordinates of conservatives, liberals and Social Democrats are not as clear to today’s voters, which explains the lack of a clear mandate election night. The elections mirrored the voting public, which is not sure what it wants or doesn’t want.

This emerging grand coalition between conservatives and Social Democrats could signal the next phase of the German debate about what must change for reform to be possible.

Pre-election debates indicated most Germans know reforms and adjustments are needed now. But voters lost confidence in the choices offered and how they were communicated.

If Angela Merkel is to lead the coalition successfully, a commitment will be needed on both sides to real cooperation and confidence. The voters have been losing trust in their parties and leaders precisely when leadership is most needed.

That also applies to foreign policy, which played a limited role in the election. However, Germany’s role and responsibilities in providing new momentum for a European Union adrift are key. Many issues such as the looming conflict with Iran, Balkans stability and support for the Middle East peace process need German engagement, resources and commitment.

Germany is in better shape than Germans believe. The country has all the resources to succeed, if it uses them. Reducing unemployment, increasing growth, cutting deficits and building public confidence are long-term goals. Whoever holds power in Berlin must set a course for achieving those goals.

If Mrs. Merkel is to lead that effort, she must effectively communicate to voters. Reaching the Chancellery will not be enough. Her pre-election communications were not as successful as hoped, so she needs to improve these in office.

The election tie between the large political parties does not mean the entire country is gridlocked. Reforms are being made from the ground up in business and in local and state governments. The question is how top-down reforms can complement and encourage those other efforts.

The election results challenge leaders to reconnect with the public to explain the need for these reforms.

Germany is not in a crisis. It has an opportunity. It would be a serious loss, not to speak of a waste of time, for Germany, Europe and trans-Atlantic relations if the opportunity is missed.

Jackson Janes is executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

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