On Sunday, free elections will take place in a united Germany for the first time in 58 years. It is a milestone likely to figure in future history books far more prominently than Saddam Hussein’s exploits. But the outside world has hardly taken notice; more attention has been paid to the election campaigns in Poland, Yugoslavia and even Guatemala.
It is also true that there has been no feverish excitement inside Germany, simply because the outcome seems a foregone conclusion. According to all the polls, the victory of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s coalition appears certain. Pollsters have been wrong on past occasions, such as the recent East German elections, and there could be a last-minute swing. But the differences between the two major parties in Germany in both foreign and domestic policies are not enormous and it is most unlikely that the Social Democrats, if successful, would pursue policies radically different from those of the present coalition.
Once upon a time, German elections brought surprises and shocks. I remember listening as a small boy to the results of the parliamentary elections of 1930 (in those pre-television days, we got the latest news on a crystal set such as can be seen now only in a museum). The Nazis had come from nowhere to emerge as the second-strongest party. My parents and most of those we knew were concerned. As subsequent events showed, the Nazis’ breakthrough in 1930 was indeed a turning point, the beginning of the end of the Weimar republic and of German democracy.
There is every reason to believe that this time, the extreme right (the Republicans) will not even achieve the 5% minimum vote that a party needs to be represented in the new parliament. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Greens’ prospects are also less than brilliant. They will again be in the Bundestag, but probably with fewer votes than last time. They have not been very successful outside their strongholds in university towns such as Heidelberg and Freiburg.
Even a year ago, few observers thought a victory of Kohl’s Christian Democrats at all possible. All indicators pointed in the other direction. The Christian Democrats had been in power for eight years, and there was a feeling that the time had come for a change. They lost heavily in regional elections. It is not widely known that all major German cities nowadays have Social Democratic mayors. The one exception is Stuttgart, where Rommel’s popular son has been the local boss for 16 years, but he is not generally thought of as a party man.
What has caused Kohl’s comeback? One could think of a number of reasons: While the Social Democrats are trusted on the local level, there is not the same measure of support for them as far as national politics are concerned. They chose as their candidate for Chancellor Oskar Lafontaine, 47, a dynamic and intelligent leader, and a much better orator than Kohl. (His fans compare Lafontaine with Jack Kennedy, his enemies with Gary Hart.) But Lafontaine, with all his talents, lacks the gravitas needed by a major political figure, and his political instincts have frequently misled him. Above all, Kohl, frequently underrated by foes and friends alike, has shown a masterly touch in the negotiations that led to German reunification.
Lastly, there is considerably less support for the left in East Germany than in the West. It is one of the ironies of history that the heartland of German Socialism, Saxony and Thuringia, has given an absolute majority to the Christian Democrats. After 40 years of a Soviet-style regime, there is little support for any socialist policies, even though they might be altogether different in inspiration. As for the former Communist Party, there is virtually no chance that it will enter the new parliament, even though it has undergone a change in name, and in part, also perhaps a change in heart.
So, it is safe to predict how--barring a miracle--a unified Germany will vote on Sunday. It is less certain how Kohl’s government will fare in the years to come. The integration of East Germany will be protracted and costly. There could be serious difficulties ahead if there should be a global recession, as a result of which Germany’s giant export surpluses might decline. The fears sometimes expressed in West and East about German ambitions concerning expansion and superpower status--at least in the European framework--seem to me greatly exaggerated. If anything, there is now an inward-looking trend, a reluctance to do one’s share and play a role in Europe and the world commensurate with Germany’s economic strength. In the light of modern German history, this is probably the lesser danger. But a danger it still is.