Politics Italian style? Normally, that's the last way anyone would describe the German political scene. But these days? It's apt. To speak of the Sept. 18 election results as "confusing" would--well, be a charitable understatement. Commentators have outdone themselves in coming up with synonyms for logjam and chaos. Some speak ominously of a "breakup" of the country's traditional political system. It's not just that neither the ruling Social Democrats nor the opposition Christian Democrats won a mandate to govern. The bigger problem is that the whole calculus of power politics has shifted, perhaps forever.
Talks to put together a "grand coalition" between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's SPD and Angela Merkel's CDU were still going on late last week, with solid prospects for success. But that didn't stop politicians in both parties from speculating about all sorts of hitherto unthinkable constellations. Despite Schroeder's opposition, some members of his party won't rule out the SPD and the Greens cobbling together a majority with the extreme-left Linkspartei, a former communist conglomerate that just entered the Bundestag with 9 percent of the vote. Many Merkel supporters, in turn, hoped to lure the economically liberal wing of the Greens into a three-way coalition with the pro-reform Free Democrats. If talks collapse and Parliament opens next week without a new government, there could even be a brand-new election--just about the last thing anyone wants. "Nothing is clear," says analyst Hans-Jorg Hennecke at Rostock University. "Anything could happen."
Politics Italian style, indeed. But atypical as Germany's current disorderliness maby be, is it entirely unexpected? After all, elsewhere in Europe established parties lost their dominance (or broke up) long ago. Italy's long-ruling Democrazia Cristiana, for example, is but a memory. France's once fringe National Front is looking startlingly mainstream. As for the British Tories, enough said. Partly, this process of disintegration reflects the natural ebb and flow of national politics; partly it's the result of Europe's long evolution from socialism to market economies, shaped by the sociopolitical thaw following the end of the cold war. If anything, it was strange that Germany--whose reunification, after all, was Western Europe's most radical change--continued to be dominated by the same old parties and faces for so long.
The difficulty that Germany's major parties have faced in assembling a governing coalition may be a tipping point. With the decline of the SPD and the CDU, coupled with the rise of the radical Linkspartei and its split from the Social Democrats, the country's political landscape has not only fractured but veered to the left. With his Agenda 2010 reforms two years ago, Schroeder forced his party (and Germany) to confront economic reality, which in turn gave Merkel the room to develop her own, more radical vision. But both produced intramural backlashes. Traditional socialists rebelled and put an end to Schroeder's experiment. During the campaign itself, both the chancellor and his SPD moved sharply left, branding the CDU's pro-reform Merkel as "heartless" and outside the German consensus for aspiring to too much change. The tactic succeeded all too well: within two months, the CDU lost a 20-point lead in the polls. Today the parties of the left--the SPD, Greens, Linkspartei--control 54 percent of the seats in Parliament. "The majority in Germany is left of center," the leader of the country's most powerful union, Frank Bzirske, rejoiced last week.
It's an open question what that might portend. Some predict that Germany will be reluctant to undertake the economic changes necessary to spark growth and create jobs, sopping up the nation's 11.2 percent unemployment rate. But others suggest that Germans of all political stripes now agree that change must come--and that the political troubles the country is experiencing could ultimately be a plus, especially if it produces a grand coalition of socialists and conservatives that will have enough political cover to push ahead with wide-ranging reforms. That's the one thing that could dampen the political influence of fringe parties on both sides.
Meanwhile, the rifts so visible among Germany's various parties are also playing out within them. Those who believe that the recent election set back the cause of pro-market-reform in Germany point to the traditionalist wing of the SPD, which never supported Schroeder's reforms and now sees itself substantially strengthened. Example: Andrea Nahles, leader of the Young Socialists and head of the SPD's far-left faction in Parliament, last week appeared set to become the SPD's new general secretary. If people like Nahles succeed in shifting the SPD left--in part to stop the hemorrhage of SPD voters to the Linkspartei--it could prove difficult to govern with the CDU, let alone to agree on any significant reforms. Other prominent SPD figures, among them Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, have pleaded for a future coalition with the Linkspartei. That scenario could split the SPD in two, since for at least a quarter of SPD deputies, the communists are anathema, warns Hans-Ulrich Klose, an SPD parliamentarian.
So it goes for the CDU, as well. The party's go-slow-on-reform wing shares the SPD's distrust of free-market forces; like its rival, it also now feels emboldened. The Greens are similarly split between big-government traditionalists and a progressive, libertarian wing that would like to move the party away from its traditional orbit around the SPD and possibly embrace the CDU. The challenge is not to get too far ahead of the Greens rank and file.
In the end, much of the fracas will devolve to a struggle over who becomes chancellor and how top jobs are divided. Still, the forces tearing at Germany's parties are real, and it's not at all clear where they'll lead. Within each party there's a wing ready to abandon the old divisions of left and right that for too long have made social welfare and economic efficiency a zero-sum game. To optimists, that suggests a pragmatic (and potentially powerful) consensus for reform could emerge, spanning ideological divisions and party lines. So Merkel last week promised that any new government under her leadership would not be " a coalition of the least common denominator, but a coalition of new possibilities." Pessimists, of course, fear just the opposite. Either could be right.