Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

Why the Germans can look to the future with confidence

After the election, gloom reigned in all quarters, but Germans are a mature society and ideally placed to master new challenges, writes John Kampfner.

In Germany, the glass is usually half empty, rarely half full. In German elections, this is even more so.

In the “elephant round” studio discussions with ARD and ZDF only two hours after polling stations closed, the seven candidates all looked miserable, as well they might. The recent elections produced a result in which none of the parties won and all of the parties have a right to feel disappointed.

The arithmetic may justify each party’s negativity, with the possible exception of the SPD, but only because at the start of the campaign its expectations were set incredibly low.

But more broadly, why the gloom? Why the orgy of self-criticism?

Firstly, one could argue that the gradual shift of the political scene from two political parties does not signify weakness in the system, but strength.

For the first time, the “Volksparteien” have received less than 50% of the vote. That is a seismic shift, but as ever in Germany it has happened through evolution, not revolution.

New parties emerge in Germany whenever societal shifts require it.

These elections have highlighted the many contradictions of German society. Voters crave predictability in politics but have produced the most unpredictable and fragile of results. They look around and see a country held back by bureaucracy and a failure to digitise. They want a politics of contentment, but they are rarely content. They are desperate for change but are also frightened by it. They know that Merkel’s time was long up, but know they are going to miss her deeply.

This will now be a rougher ride. “Germans have to learn how to argue,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, Director of the NRW School of Governance and one of the country’s top political scientists, suggests. “They have to realise that politics is about more than administrative problem-solving.”

That was Merkel’s leadership style. At least for a decade it corresponded to the broader yearning of the electorate for stability after the Hartz reforms which were, by German standards, a disorientating and radical shift not just in policy but in the basic tenet of the post-war social market economy.

Langsam aber sicher. These were the watchwords of the Merkel era. She probably should have gone in 2017, but when she looked around at the challenges around the world – the advent of Donald Trump, the act of egregious self-harm that was Brexit, the rise of authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary – she decided to stay. After all, who else would provide a bulwark against dangerous populism? Then came Corona and the need for reassurance became ever stronger.

Her departure was always going to be unsettling. After all, an entire generation has known only her as leader.

For the next several months, everything will change, and nothing will change. Merkel will stay on as the boss, carrying out what she always calls her “duty”. If she makes it to December 17, she will overtake Helmut Kohl as the longest-serving Chancellor of modern Germany. Not that she is hanging on, in the hope of achieving this landmark. She has made it clear, time and again, she wants out, to tend to her garden and not to have manage any more crises that befall the country.

Before she goes, she will have to oversee the G20 and the Cop-26 climate change conference in Glasgow. In January, Germany will take over the G7 from the UK with either an inexperienced or an interim government.

In other countries, such a situation would give rise to fears of chaos. But in Germany, the outgoing government will function smoothly for as long as needed, although it will not introduce new legislation.

One could look at the election results with despair or at least disappointment. But as the old saying goes, voters are not wrong. They produce a result that generally reflects the state of their country (if the democratic processes are properly observed).

For sure, the quality of the candidates did not inspire. One of the most legitimate criticisms of Merkel is that she, whether deliberately or inadvertently, sucked the lifeblood out of her party and arguably politics in general. The CDU could not provide a credible leader. It does not know what it stands for. In Armin Laschet, it came up with someone who has Boris Johnson’s clownishness but not his charisma. The idea that he could lead a three-party coalition with any authority is delusional. His time in politics is up. His party should spend the next few in opposition rethinking conservatism for contemporary Germany.

For all the horse-trading that begins now, the verdict delivered by voters was actually quite clear. It favoured Olaf Scholz, but only in comparison with the other choices on offer. It wants him to form a coalition with the two more modern parties, the Greens and the FDP, and it wants a more collective, horizontal and forward-looking form of cabinet government. That will be hard to achieve. It is possible, but only when accompanied by a grown-up political culture.

Germany’s electorate is among the best informed of any in the world. Serious political chat shows get strong audiences. Newspapers are still assiduously read. Conversations frequently revolve around the minutiae of party policies, and not only in the “Berlin Bubble”.

Even though the stakes were high, even though the quality of the candidates on offer was less than inspiring, by the standards of other countries this was a decent, earnest campaign. The politics of theatre do not sit easily in Germany.

The next few months will provide a masterclass in deliberative, policy-driven politics. Some might yearn for the binary, winner-takes-all, showman form of politics that exist in the US, UK, even in France. Everything is relative. The recent spate of hyper-critical discussions of Merkel’s legacy fail to acknowledge the point that, for several years at least, she provided the only strong counterweight to populists and authoritarians.

She made plenty of mistakes – not least failing to identify and promote a viable successor – but, once the Sturm und Drang of the political moment is past, the historical assessments of her term will be more positive.

A serious, mature society is on the point of giving up its Merkelesque comfort blanket. She provided stability, if a somewhat stultifying one, for 16 years. Germans know they want change, but they have demonstrated through their voting habits that they want to diversify the responsibility into several hands.

As Bernhard Wessels, of the WZB institute, put it to me: “Germans want the representation of the most amount of people, rather than the representation of the majority.”

That is a complicated task, and difficult days lie ahead, but such a diversification of political allegiance should be seen more as a strength than a weakness.

Simple politics often produces dangerous simpletons as leaders. Complex politics is harder to navigate. It reflects, and reinforces, a more durable democracy. Germans should see the election results as an achievement rather than a failure.

John Kampfner is a British journalist and author of ‘Why the Germans Do It Better’ (Atlantic). This article was first printed in the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.