Voters in the German federal election on Sunday had the opportunity to sweep away the detritus of 16 years of compromises from retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Green party led in the opinion polls by a good margin earlier in the year. Only a few days ago, the Guardian dared to dream of a red-blooded left-wing coalition between Social Democrats, Greens and the former communist Left Party united by desire for higher taxes, more pernickety controls and a slug of anti-Americanism.
In the end, the German voters did what they have done for much of the post-war era, giving victory to the parties of the right (acknowledging that these labels seem to be less meaningful these days).
This time the margins are razor thin: Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) scored 45.9% over the combined left’s 45.4% and won 371 seats to 363.
But not so fast. Germany’s establishment – led by Angela Merkel – has boycotted the populist AfD, much as it used to exclude the former communists. Hence the excruciating series of Merkel-dominated coalitions, mostly between the Christian and Social Democrats, since 2005.
But while politicians have waited impatiently for voters to give them a clear – and appropriate – lead, the voters have chosen to throw back a challenge.
Popular wisdom puts the Free Democrats as the kingmakers but can embattled market liberals really make a workable deal with a resurgent left? Angela Merkel seems to have used up every possible avenue for compromise over the better part of two decades.
Unpopular wisdom says that so many interest groups have been appeased that there is actually more room for policy agreement between the market liberals, social conservatives and anti-immigration populists on the right. But that would require a wrenching repudiation of Merkellism, and draw establishment opprobrium. There is little sign that Germany’s right has the self-belief to take power and make decisions in line with their professed principles.
Which leaves the current – and very German – solution of an inconsistent coalition led by a compromising centrist (come back Angela Merkel and save the country). The problem with this is that the two main party’s combined vote share dropped below 50% for the first time this election – well below the 75 – 80% they could expect in the early Merkel years.
So expect the talking to go on for some time. If the right can’t sort themselves out, they might even throw in the towel and call for fresh elections thinking that even if the left gets a mandate to do silly things, in four years time they get to pick up the pieces.
Which, New Zealand take note, demonstrates the weakness of the MMP system. The lack of a binary choice means decisions can be avoided for longer.
This didn’t matter in the early years of the post-war German republic. Issues were clear and the public culture strong and homogeneous. But in recent years, the system has struggled to come to terms with leadership in Europe, absorption of post-communist east Germany and the intellectual battle between populist statism and market liberalism.
Decisions eventually have to be made, even under MMP. But in Germany it may need some more iteration between the electors and the elected.