German Campaign, Amid Fiery Debate Abroad, Shuffles Toward Consensus

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BERLIN -- It would be easy to mock the political campaign that ends with Sunday's national elections in Germany as a version of fiddling while Rome burns. It has lacked any heated debate over the nation's role in maintaining the common European currency or addressing the crippling levels of unemployment among its southern neighbors.

The clashes over intervention in Syria that consumed the Britain, France, Russia and the United States for weeks barely made a political ripple here, underscoring how deeply Germans shun the use of force. Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government and the left-leaning opposition remained largely united in supporting an ambitious and costly plan to wean the economy off nuclear power and carbon fuels. There was little talk of the demographic challenges of an aging population.

It was a showcase for the postwar German tendency toward consensus, and was all the more remarkable for the contrast it provided to the bitter ideological clashes playing out in the United States and many other big democracies. It could well yield an outcome almost unfathomable in peacetime Washington, Paris or London: a power-sharing agreement between the main parties of the left and right.

The relative comity between the major parties on the campaign trail does not mean that Ms. Merkel, assuming she emerges to lead the next government, can escape tough choices or that Germany can insulate itself from forces beyond its control: from the financial markets and the global economy to tumult in the Middle East and a Russia that is trying to reassert itself.

Welcomed by many Germans as stability at a time of prosperity, the mood may nonetheless disappoint Germany's allies in the United States, who would love to see the country assert itself more in Europe, as well as its partners in the European Union who just want to end the bloc's doldrums and look to Germany for bolder action.

Frustrating as it may be, this Germany of slow steps and consensus politics is precisely the one that the United States and its victorious European allies sought to forge in the smoldering ruins of World War II. It is a structure that was reinforced as late as the country's reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the old German question of how to tame the country's undoubted power was solved by wrapping it still tighter in the bonds of a unified Europe, the very ones being tested today by a slow-grinding economic crisis.

It is also a system that has promoted steady and farsighted vision on big issues. More than in most Western democracies, German leaders, including Ms. Merkel, who is seeking a third term, have persuaded their people to endure short-term pains for longer-term gains -- whether reunification, energy transformation or, a decade ago, the kinds of labor and economic overhauls that other European nations are still blinking at.

"We are the students very eager to learn the American re-education program," said Jürgen Falter, 69, a professor at the University of Mainz and an expert both on the Nazi past and Germany's complex electoral system. "And we have really fully internalized it -- we go for pacifism, not belligerence, consensus rather than conflict."

After 1945, the Allies deliberately built a federal structure that dispersed power from Berlin and scattered national institutions throughout what was then West Germany. In addition, they devised an electoral law virtually guaranteed to produce a coalition government; no chancellor since Konrad Adenauer in the late 1950s has been able to govern alone.

For proof, take Ms. Merkel of the Christian Democrats and her main rival, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats. Numerous domestic and international observers have struggled to detect vibrancy in the back-and-forth between Ms. Merkel's camp and Mr. Steinbrück's over any range of issues -- child allowance for nonworking mothers, how best to preserve generally good and cheap health care, and even what Berlin really intends for the 17-nation euro zone or the 28-member European Union.

The distinctions in their positions fall squarely into the two social groupings from which they spring: the Christian middle class in the case of the Christian Democrats, and the working class and trade unions for the Social Democrats.

The center-left is more open about the possible need to raise taxes, given the impoverished state of Germany's municipal and state coffers. By common agreement, the national infrastructure -- road, rail, bridges and the broadband Internet -- sorely needs attention and investment.

Yet virtually on the eve of the election, it remains uncertain what issues would block a deal if the parties are in fact pushed by fractured returns into negotiations to form a "grand coalition," like the one Ms. Merkel headed from 2005 to 2009 -- with Mr. Steinbrück her widely praised finance minister and partner in getting through the 2008 financial crisis.

This smudging of differences is abetted by both Ms. Merkel's character and her skill as a political tactician. The chancellor -- who together with her current finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has managed the euro crisis very much step by step -- is skilled at floating ideas to test their resonance, then subtly shifting policy if needed.

Similarly, while no great orator, Ms. Merkel lays out arguments to listeners who feel invited to think along with her, and appreciate being included, Professor Falter suggested.

In this way, gradually over two terms, she has come to occupy a progressively larger share of Germany's political center, even nudging out the left. Domestically, this has allowed her, so far with Social Democratic support, to preserve the national consensus on helping needy European neighbors.

But in a new term, a doubling down on consensus politics could also reinforce the limits of German largess. There is broad agreement that the euro has been good for this export powerhouse, and the chancellor has told voters in this campaign that the overhauls in southern Europe are beginning to bear fruit.

Aware that Ms. Merkel floats ideas to see what sticks, some European allies -- notably Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is under strong pressure from skeptics who do not believe in a united Europe -- listened carefully when she used her first major interview after summer vacation to talk vaguely of returning some powers from Brussels to national governments.

What that might mean for politics and business was unclear. An article in Germany's major business daily, Handelsblatt, fleshed out the ideas in the past week, citing unnamed sources close to Ms. Merkel. In a familiar ritual, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, then denied any such move was afoot.

Reading tea leaves like these will undoubtedly occupy diplomats and others in coming weeks, as the popular Ms. Merkel and whichever assortment of parliamentary parties assures her a majority, thrash out a new consensus in the form of a coalition pact.

The Social Democrats, aware that their share of the vote slumped to 23 percent in 2009 from 34 percent in 2005 after four years in partnership with the chancellor, will enter a similar union only with deep reservations, particularly aware of Ms. Merkel's knack for reaping the benefit from others' ideas.

But, by international comparison, the wonder is that the center-leftists would enter such a partnership at all. "Out of responsibility to the state," one Social Democrat put it privately last week.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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