On Sunday, Germany will hold an election that contains at least five unknowns. If it were an equation, it would be impossible to solve. Fortunately, politics is not mathematics though, unfortunately, this means that there are no clear solutions. Indeed, even in the opaque terms of contemporary politics, the German case is particularly vexing.
The first unknown is why the election is taking place at all. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had another 15 months to go before the end of the electoral term and it seemed that he had no difficulty mobilizing his admittedly slender majority in parliament.
To be sure, the big issues that the Federal President listed when he dissolved the Bundestag are real. The fiscal position is, by German standards, unacceptable, and public debt at current levels is contrary to the EU's Stability and Growth Pact and a burden on future generations. Demographic developments alone require major reforms of social policy. Moreover, the institutions of the federal system do not permit decisions to be made either expeditiously or clearly.
None of this is new, nor will it be changed by an election. So it is not obvious to many people why they are voting.
The second unknown concerns what, exactly, separates the major parties in this contest. The Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU) are both committed to the "social market economy," to the essentials of corporatist economic management, to maintaining the entitlements of the welfare state, and to the EU and NATO.
True, the campaign has brought out nuances that may turn out to be important. Schroeder's SPD uses the word "social" a little more emphatically than it did in the last seven years. The opposition CDU leader, Angela Merkel, has linked its program to the ambitious ideas of an outsider, former constitutional court judge Paul Kirchhof, seeking a dramatic simplification of the tax system.
In international affairs, Merkel is more skeptical about European enlargement, notably to include Turkey, than Schroeder. Merkel, an East German by background, is also more cautious in her approach to Russia. But these are nuances, not fundamental differences.
The third unknown is the performance of the Left Party, a new formation positioned to the left of the SPD and built on East Germany's ex-communist PDS, with the addition of a significant number of dissident Social Democrats in the West who proclaim themselves to be defenders of the welfare state.
The Left Party is led by two talk-show politicians, Gregor Gysi, the former PDS leader, and Oskar Lafontaine, the ex-leader of the SPD, who do not have much more in common than a record of political failure and a talent for populist speeches. But this clearly appeals to those who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten. The popular vote for this party -- which could be 10 percent -- may well determine what kind of coalition is formed after the election.
The fourth unknown is therefore what the next government will actually do. It will clearly be a government without the new Left Party. It will also be a government without the Greens, who continue to have a devoted, if limited, clientele, but are now regarded by many as a luxury that Germany can no longer afford. This leaves two possibilities: a coalition between the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the liberal Free Democrats, or a grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU.
The latter is what most Germans want; the former is what they are most likely to get. But most people doubt whether it even makes a difference, and they are probably right. There is a widespread desire for change, including a change of government, but there is an equally widespread belief that nothing momentous will happen.
This underscores the final, and deepest, unknown concerning the upcoming election: Who will put a confused and directionless Germany back on a road to initiative and growth? Who will make Germany an engine of Europe again rather than a gloomy passenger?
What Germany needs is, in fact, fairly clear. It needs to accept that globalization is above all an opportunity, one that must be grasped by confident, innovative, and entrepreneurial people. Germans need to understand again -- as they did so well after 1945 -- that their future lies in their own hands, as citizens, rather than in the power of some remote State.
Above all, Germany must appreciate that the changes it needs are improvements that would guarantee its future security. Perhaps what it requires most is a touch of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher's policies of the 1980s, combined with incumbent British Prime Minister Tony Blair's rhetoric of today. But it remains to be seen whether, or when, that might be on offer.
Ralf Dahrendorf, author of numerous acclaimed books and a former European Commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a former rector of the London School of Economics and a former warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences
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