Many Germans voted, though few expected change

Update: The voters have decided that Angela Merkel will remain chancellor of Germany. Of course, that much was certain going into election day. But, the election did determine that Germans will, in fact, see a change in their national government. While the final tallies of the vote have yet to be made, it seems all but certain that Merkel's CDU and the free market Free Democratic party together will receive just enough seats in parliament to form a governing coalition that promised to revive the slumping national economy with tax cuts. The Social Democrats will join the Left Party and the Greens in the opposition.

It counts as a hard-fought victory for Merkel, one achieved in surprising fashion. Merkel's Christian Democrats lost votes compared to the election four years ago, garnering only 33 percent of the vote. The victory of her preferred "black-yellow" coalition can be attributed nearly entirely to the pro-business FDP's gaining 15 percent of the vote, the best result in the party's history. Merkel had promised to temper the FDP's more radical plans to restructure the German economy, but given her party's relatively weak election results, the coalition may prove more of a nuisance than she had hoped. In her post-election speech to supporters at the CDU party headquarters, Merkel claimed that she would serve as "the chancellor of all Germans," but a partnership with the FDP likely won't long allow her to maintain the above-the-fray image she's cultivated.

The results of the country's other major party can genuinely be considered a surprise. After 11 consecutive years of serving in the federal government, the SPD was handed a catastrophic defeat. It earned only 23 percent of the vote, by far the lowest tally in postwar German history, failing to meet even the party's most conservative expectations. Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted that the Social Democrats had experienced a "bitter defeat," but promised to lead the party's parliamentary group in the opposition. Given the disastrous election results, the SPD's more liberal wing is likely to clamor for a change in leadership, in hopes of sooner building a bridge to the Left Party, which is currently a pariah on the federal level, but which nonetheless earned over 12 percent in the election. 

BERLIN, Germany — The church bells rang out over Berlin as usual this Sunday morning. But rather than heading to church, streams of locals of varying age and social class, most in finely pressed clothes, were headed toward local schools to cast their votes in the country’s federal election.

In a country that is ever more estranged from its religious heritage and increasingly cynical about the competence of its major political parties, the act of voting still enjoys an aura of earnestness. Despite an election campaign that attracted little fervor among Germans and was criticized for the lack of clear alternatives it put on offer, participation in today’s voting is expected to almost equal the 77 percent turnout in 2005. And there isn't even much suspense: Angela Merkel will almost certainly remain as chancellor, with only the coalition behind her in question.

By comparison, about 131 million Americans voted in the pivotal 2008 presidential election, 5 million more than in 2004, or a turnout of 56.8 percent.

To the extent that the act of voting enjoys a patina of idealism in Germany, it’s because of the country’s recent and not-so-recent history. At an elementary school in the central Berlin district of Mitte, most of the voters were clearly among those from the creative and political classes that moved to Berlin after the fall of the Wall in 1989. But, some of those making their way to the polls still had clear memories of life under the authoritarian Communist Party in East Germany. “We sometimes had elections, but if you didn’t vote you got in trouble,” said Timm Drieschner. “Things haven’t really gotten better in our lives since the wall came down, but at least the elections are real.”

Other voters point to lessons ingrained in the culture after the horrors of Hitler's dictatorship. “We learn from a young age that political life can go very, very wrong and that the country can suffer because of it,” said one voter who declined to be named. “So Germans take it as a responsibility to try to keep their public life on track.”

But, other voters suggested that the high election participation is still reflective of authoritarian impulses in the culture at large. “People in Germany don’t have a personal commitment to the politics they go vote for,” said Britta Schumacher, a doctoral student of sociology at the Free University in Berlin. “They receive their ballot in the mail, and they participate in the election simply because that’s what’s expected of them by their government and their culture.”

The cognitive dissonance between campaign apathy and election day reverence proved itself most extreme among the country’s most vocal voting bloc — namely, its political journalists. The unwieldy “Grand Coalition” that was forged between the country’s two major parties and has been governing Germany for the past four years, has since its inception been targeted relentlessly by commentators for embodying the pathologies of the country’s political system at large: The pairing of Merkel’s right-leaning Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), they said, stifled dissent, encouraged backroom intrigue at the expense of open debate, and, all around, was simply boring. Those criticisms reached a fever pitch over the course of the campaign.

But, in the days before the actual vote, the world-weary journalists found a new voice, pleading with readers to participate in the election. Several sober editorials in the daily and weekly papers were devoted to the scourge of the “non-voter.” One mass tabloid, which had previously made light of the election by offering a million-euro jackpot to a reader who correctly guessed its outcome, simply titled its election-day issue “Please go vote!” and spotlighted a selection of prominent locals waxing idealistic on the notion of election participation.

It doesn’t seem that Germans need to have their arms twisted to be convinced to go participate in the electoral process. Even if the voters aren’t expressing their deepest political wishes, they are ratifying the general sobriety of their political system in general. They don’t seem to mind so much the lack of charisma on display in their leading politicians. In fact, they’ve taken a liking to the special brand of anti-charisma Merkel exudes.

To that extent, the CDU has rejected criticism that they’ve run a campaign this year that has lulled the country into thinking there are no differences between the parties. “This is the campaign that the German people want,” one party functionary was quoted as saying this past week. Indeed, Merkel’s party had tried running a polarizing campaign four years ago, one that promised deep reforms in the country’s economic structure, but she was punished at the polls. Given the turbulence of the financial crisis, the CDU is now placing all of its bets on the allure of Merkel’s steady hand.

And it’s precisely the experience of the previous federal election that has shaped the SPD’s central election strategy: For weeks, Merkel’s challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been warning about the dangers of the lower taxes promised by the center-right coalition between the CDU and its preferred coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). “It will tear this country apart,” Steinmeier has bellowed at election rallys. Most polls suggest that the strategy has promise: Though Germany would like to keep Merkel as chancellor, they would rather her steer a Grand Coalition than the “black-yellow” coalition with the FDP that she prefers.

By Sunday evening, Steinmeier will find out whether he’s convinced Germany to stick with the familiar, if staid, management of the Grand Coalition, or whether they’ve decided to depart from their deep penchant for consensus. Either way, the vast majority of Germans will rest easy knowing they’ve fulfilled their duty to participate in the election.