Even though the immediate postwar Europe is a fading memory, Germans still opt for stability and familiarity when they head to the polls. They did so again Sunday, by giving Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose personal style is caution verging on monotony, a third term, with 41.5 percent of the vote, just short of an absolute majority in the lower house.
While parliamentary democracies are considered more tumultuous – witness Italy and France – than the U.S. winner-take-all version, Merkel, 59, is only the country’s eighth postwar chancellor. In that time, the U.S. has had a dozen presidents.
Being five seats short of a majority, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party will have to seek a coalition partner. Her old allies, the pro-business Free Democrats, did not poll enough to qualify for a seat in parliament, and the Greens did so poorly that their entire leadership resigned.
That leaves a so-called “grand coalition” with the center-left Social Democrats, the price of which probably will be slightly increased spending on domestic social programs. However, in bargaining with Merkel, Social Democrats will have to face the political reality of the chancellor’s overwhelming personal popularity.
The election ratified Merkel’s policies of steady growth and low unemployment at home, restraint abroad – Germany, unlike France and Britain, has played a minimal-to-nonexistent role in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – and a tough-minded approach to bailing out southern Europe’s troubled economies, especially Greece’s.
Germany has not been stingy in trying to help other eurozone nations facing fiscal crises. A Munich economic research institute cited by The New York Times said Germany has shelled out nearly $600 billion to shore up those economies and has total bailout liabilities of $868 billion.
The bailouts have been unpopular in Germany, where they are seen as picking up the tab for other countries’ fiscal recklessness. Nor are they particularly popular in the recipient countries, which feel that the fiscal and social austerity policies Merkel demanded in return are unnecessarily harsh and punitive.
Germany has not said definitively no to a third bailout of Greece, but the Merkel government has been cool, and after the election cooler still, to unified Europe-wide banking and social security systems and the issuance of eurozone bonds to raise capital for the EU central bank independent of the donor nations.
The chancellor is too modest and self-controlled to say so, but Sunday’s election ratified her status as the most influential politician in Europe.