Today, German voters will decide on the shape of their government for the next four years. Although the campaign has been lackluster, even by German standards, the results will have important implications not only for the future direction of Germany but for all of Europe.
The torpor of the campaign is deceptive given what may be a razor thin margin of victory resembling that of Gore vs. Bush in 2000. Germany is almost evenly divided between the left (the Social Democrats-SPD, the Left party and the Greens) and the center right (The Christian Democrats -CDU, their Bavarian allied Christian Social Union-CSU and the Free Democrats-FDP). The election system, which is based on proportional representation, ensures that no party can gain a majority by itself and must form a coalition with one or even two other parties. Polls indicate a dead heat between these two loose groupings of parties. However, only two coalitions seem realistic; either one of the center right or a continuation of the current governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. In either outcome, the current Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will remain in the job. Furthermore, she will be in a strengthened position, for no matter which coalition she leads, her coalition partners will be weaker than her party.
The outcome has important implications for Germany's European neighbors and for the U.S., which has a stake in a strong European partner. Germany is the most powerful country in Europe with both the largest population and economy in the European Union. It may be a stretch to say that as Germany goes so goes Europe, but it is difficult to imagine Europe going anywhere without German leadership. Germany is the Central European player regarding relations with Russia and the EU's eastern neighborhood. There can be no effective Western strategy toward Russia and Eastern Europe without Berlin, and Germany will be key to a coordinated Western approach to dealing with the financial crisis.
Under the current misnamed Grand Coalition of the two biggest parties, Germany has largely followed a foreign policy of the lowest common denominator. Merkel's opponent for the job of Chancellor is her Foreign Minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier. It is not surprising, then, that there have been few contentious issues in the campaign as both of the main parties are both responsible for the policies of the past four years.
If there is a continuation of the current government then much will remain the same. This is hardly a disaster for Europe or the U.S. but it implies that Germany is likely to continue to have a cautious foreign policy and is not going to pick up big leadership challenges. However, Germany will be facing expectations both in Europe and in the U.S. that it begin to pick up more responsibility in foreign policy. President Barack Obama stated clearly in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week that "now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges." The United States has been greatly weakened as a global power and needs a strong partner in Europe. With Europe about to decide on the Lisbon Treaty, the opportunity for Berlin to take that step toward a greater role may soon present itself. A strong German leadership will be required here as well.
If, however, the center right coalition emerges then there will be new energy and a possibility for leadership, especially on economic policy. A CDU-FDP government will reverse the current path away from nuclear energy and this will in turn help to somewhat reduce German dependence on Russia energy. It will also, however, be less friendly to the Turkish bid for EU membership. On Afghanistan, it will not increase the German commitment and will look for an exit timetable. However, if the SPD goes into opposition, it will clearly move to the left and may make German involvement in Afghanistan a major issue. This in turn could lead to a consolidation of the left and the prospect of a more left-wing government down the road.
The big question which will emerge from Sunday is who is the real Angela Merkel? She has not shown herself to be a bold or visionary leader in her first four years. Will she now emerge as the leader of Europe or will she continue to be a risk averse manager?