Last Tuesday evening, a ghost hovered for a short time in the peaceful, reddish glow of early evening over the southwestern German city of Freiburg. The magician who put it there was none other than the Social Democratic Party's candidate for the chancellorship, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He was standing on a lake stage on the edge of the city's beer garden, talking about how awful things would be in a Germany ruled by a coalition government comprising the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
"Many people ask me: Would a black-yellow coalition (the colors of the CDU and FDP) really be as bad as the Social Democrats say?" Steinmeier's response, not surprisingly, was: yes, of course. A CDU-FDP coalition government would reduce social benefits, undermine protections against employee termination, and make the government poor so that the rich could pay less in taxes, Steinmeier said. With each sentence, the ghost he had conjured up became more threatening.
"That's why I'm asking you to tell that to anyone who believes that things won't be half bad with a black-yellow coalition," he said.
Steinmeier and his fellow Social Democrats have been conjuring up the black-and-yellow ghost all across Germany lately -- in every speech and every interview. It is the same ghost former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder conjured up successfully in the last campaign four years ago. It seemed strong and threatening to many at the time. And now? Hasn't black-and-yellow become a bit of a limp ghost? And is it even capable of scaring people anymore?
So far, the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, and the FDP haven't exactly come across as a closed formation with a clear goal in mind. This leaves German voters wondering which is more curious: that these so-called ideal partners lack a game plan or the fact that they are at loggerheads.
The pro-business liberals (FDP) and the conservatives (CDU and CSU) have been bickering for weeks now. CSU leader Horst Seehofer derisively referred to FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle as "that sensitive soul," while FDP Vice-Chairman Rainer Brüderle accuses the conservatives of engaging in "parasitic behavior." Indeed, the two sides have been so spiteful toward each other in recent weeks that they could easily be mistaken for archenemies, not partners of choice.
Unlike the summer of 2005, when Merkel and Westerwelle were ardently campaigning for a black-yellow reform project, there is a sense of trepidation, even disinclination, to their efforts. They hope to come into power quietly, furtively and without a shared vision -- in other words, without fighting.
What, then, is the black-yellow platform for the 2009 election set to take place on Sunday, Sept. 27?
Four years ago, the liberals and conservatives shared a vision. They introduced themselves to voters as a decisive team of reformers, as an alliance for which Schröder's Agenda 2010 structural reforms hadn't gone far enough, one that called for deeper cuts and greater sacrifices. In their campaign, they used code words promoting a society driven mainly by competition. The zeitgeist on which they were surfing was neoliberalism.
Today black-yellow seems like an anachronism, outdated and out of place. The years when journalists, academics and politicians vied to produce the more radical reform proposals are over. The financial crisis has not just consumed billions, it has also destroyed faith in the power of the market. There would be something odd about the FDP, the favorite party of bankers, becoming part of the next government this fall. Besides, the FDP stubbornly refuses to recognize the challenges of international climate change. If the liberals had their way, Germany's climate protection program would be systematically slashed.
The massive amount of distrust between the CDU/CSU and the FDP makes it virtually impossible for the would-be coalition partners to generate a feeling of commonality during this summer's election season. Although each of the two sides describes the other as its partner of choice, both refuse to grant exclusivity to the other. "I cannot and do not wish to trust Mr. Westerwelle," CSU Chairman Seehofer admitted a few weeks ago. CDU/CSU officials are convinced that Westerwelle could join forces with SPD candidate Steinmeier and the Green Party to form a so-called traffic-light coalition (the color attributed to the SPD is red, making it a red-yellow-green alliance).
Westerwelle, for his part, wants the CDU/CSU to renounce the grand coalition -- Merkel's power-sharing government together with the left-leaning SPD since 2005 -- and more importantly, any possible pact with the Green Party. But Merkel doesn't want to do that. Keeping too many back doors open makes it difficult to build trust or euphoria.
The difficult relationship between the liberals and the conservatives is also reflected in the relationship between their leaders. Merkel and Westerwelle are far less emotional about each other today than they were when they first joined forces in a bid for power. Their relationship has the flavor of a failed love affair, with Westerwelle playing the role of the jilted party.
In private, the FDP chief tends to refer to the Chancellor as "Mutti," saying things like: "Mommy just gave another great speech." Of course, he means it in a disparaging way. Westerwelle is disappointed by Merkel's performance as chancellor, so much so that he feels personally insulted.
The two politicians had a better relationship before Merkel formed her grand coalition government. They liked each other, and they had a lot in common. Both were liberal, and both had to hold their own against their parties' cantankerous good old boys' clubs.
The 2005 parliamentary election put an end to their plans for a common future. Westerwelle had believed that he and Merkel shared more than political ideals. He thought the two had developed a friendship.
Merkel thought differently. For Merkel, there is no such thing as friendship in politics. She had become the chancellor of a grand coalition government, while Westerwelle became the opposition leader. At the time, Merkel prevented the FDP leader from responding directly to her government statements in the German parliament, the Bundestag. She made a point of conversing with fellow party members or -- even worse -- with SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering or Steinmeier, while Westerwelle attacked her policies in the plenary assembly. The papers were reporting how often she sent text messages to Müntefering, while Westerwelle was being left virtually high and dry.
A First Alliance Between the CDU and Greens
When Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust, a member of Merkel's CDU, expressed a preference for the Green Party leading up to the February 2008 state parliamentary election, Westerwelle was furious while Merkel said nothing. The FDP failed to secure seats in the state parliament, while the CDU entered into its first-ever alliance with the Greens at the state level.
As payback, Westerwelle went hiking in the Sauerland region with the chancellor's archenemy, former CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz, who threw in the towel after his legendary quarrels with Merkel.
Merkel and Westerwelle have changed considerably since 2005. Ultimately, both have veered closer to the left and become more social democratic, even if they themselves would deny it.
Westerwelle has tried to boost his credibility in the last eight years, and to some extent, he has succeeded. In the past, as he admits today, he could "compensate for a touch of insecurity by making audacious statements." Those statements included, in particular, declarations of war against workers, trade unions ("a plague for our country") and "social romantics" in the CDU/CSU. He liked to portray himself as an advocate of the self-employed and early risers.
Little of that has remained, as even Westerwelle has toned down his rhetoric. Until recently, he was relatively unconcerned about divisions in German society. Nowadays he says privately that, in the past, he "never really noticed injustice."
'If She Had Her Way, She Would Continue to Govern with the SPD'
In the course of encounters and conversations, Westerwelle was horrified to learn that the retirement savings of many of the unemployed were going "down the drain." For this reason, he says today, he would "personally see to it" that, under a coalition agreement, "the Schonvermögen (personal assets a welfare recipient must use up before being eligible for assistance under the Hartz IV welfare program for the long-term unemployed) for Hartz IV recipients be tripled to €750 ($1,070) per year of a person's age."
Merkel's transformation has been even more radical. All it takes to recognize this is a visit to one of her so-called campaign appearances. She is unwilling to take any clear positions, handing out received wisdom the way Mother Hulda, in the German fairy tale, distributed her down.
"The election is important, because every Bundestag election is important," she told an audience on the cathedral square in the northern city of Münster on Thursday. Realizing that this sounded a little thin, she added: "The election is also important, because Germany is not in an easy situation." If Merkel hadn't been clearly recognizable, one might have been led to believe that the appearance was merely the filming of one of the campaign parodies currently playing in German movie theaters.
Merkel Would Keep Same Conservative Cabinet Members
The 2009 Angela Merkel is a consequence of the 2005 Angela Merkel. In 2005, she almost squandered an expected election victory, narrowly managing to save herself as chancellor of a grand coalition. She swore that it would never happen again. Never again would she promise reforms and demand sacrifices of voters. Now, with her non-committal campaign, Merkel is driving her entire team to the brink of self-denial. This is particularly evident in the party's new superstar.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg doesn't owe his great popularity to his polished appearance, but to his reputation for straightforwardness and defending his convictions. He acquired this reputation with one word, "no," which he uttered on the night the government was negotiating the future of Opel and chose auto parts supplier Magna as the automaker's savior. Guttenberg thought it was a bad idea, and he has been popular ever since.
Guttenberg would probably like to say what he's thinking and what he feels is the right thing to do more often.
In March, shortly after being appointed economics minister, when he was still caught up in the euphoria of taking office, Guttenberg asked his staff to prepare a report summarizing what they believed was necessary and desirable when it came to economic policy.
A few months later, Guttenberg was handed a 61-page document with the cumbersome title "General Industrial Policy Concept." It contained everything that is near and dear to an economic liberal: fewer protections against termination, the elimination of minimum wages, an end to reduced value-added tax rates, but also low income tax rates. Some of these things were part of Merkel's campaign platform in 2005.
But when Guttenberg's list was leaked to the public, a panic erupted at the Chancellery. At first, Merkel distanced herself from her economics minister, who then distanced himself from -- himself. The concept was not his own, he insisted.
It's probably true that Guttenberg doesn't believe that all of the proposals his staff had compiled make sense. But it can also be assumed that he does support much of what is in the document. "What is written reflects what is thought," CSU Chairman Seehofer said privately, referring to the incident.
Now Guttenberg intends to revise the document himself, but he is not willing to reveal whether the new version will be released during the campaign. For now, he is seeking refuge in the realm of esotericism. "It is not my intention to read 50 or 60 pages of concepts to you," he told an audience on Bonn's Münsterplatz square last Tuesday. "I simply want to allow my heart to speak to you directly."
FDP Would Bring Back Old Guard
His comment earned him enthusiastic applause. Part of the reason Guttenberg is so popular is that both the CDU/CSU and the FDP have little to offer but the same familiar faces.
If elected, the CDU/CSU would likely keep the same cabinet Merkel has had for the past four years. The FDP would appoint even older politicians, including half the party establishment from the days when the German capital was in Bonn and the party still shared power with the CDU under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, 58, who resigned as German justice minister in 1996, would be asked to return to the same post 13 years later. Rainer Brüderle, 64, a minister in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate for many years, has been hoping to secure a federal cabinet post for decades, and his wish will likely come true if the FDP joins a coalition government. His older rival Hermann Otto Solms, 68, has been his party's treasurer since the administration of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. To top off his career, he hopes to be made finance minister in the next administration.
There have been two black-yellow coalition governments in Germany in the past. The first lasted from 1961 to 1965, while the second persisted for 16 years. Neither coalition government was known for its dynamic reforms. The few elements of Kohl's legacy that are still fondly remembered today include his foreign policy in the year of German reunification and his European policy. At any rate, black-yellow coalitions have not been reformist administrations. The Kohl administration declined to enact necessary measures, particularly in scaling back Germany's social systems, instead leaving its successors, the former Chancellor Schröder's SPD-Green coalition, with a heap of problems.
Opposition from Bavarian Conservatives
CSU Chairman Seehofer, in particular, who felt exceedingly comfortable as health minister under Kohl, wants to make sure that a third black-yellow coalition will not be significantly more energetic on reforms than previous incarnations. His goal is to stand in the way of all of the FDP's bold plans. "If Mr. Westerwelle believes that he will be able to perform a neoliberal string concert after the election, he will become acquainted with the CSU's spirit of resistance," Seehofer threatened. He has already decided exactly which of the FDP's ideas he plans to thwart.
The CSU chairman is just as opposed to a relaxation of termination protections as the abolition of sector-specific minimum wage rates. "That's where we will draw the line." Seehofer is also strictly against the FDP rehashing the old idea of a capitation fee in healthcare. "As long as I am in office, we will not agree to a premium," says Seehofer.
The subject of genetic engineering is also a bone of contention. The liberals plan to approve, once again, the use of genetically modified crops in German commercial farming, which Seehofer opposes. Domestic policy presents similarly tricky challenges.
In early summer, domestic policy experts with the FDP and the CDU/CSU met in Berlin for a closed-door meeting, where they tried to sound out what they could achieve in a coalition government.
It soon became clear that the group was at an impasse. The CDU/CSU delegates were forced to realize that they hadn't fared too poorly as part of the left-right grand coalition, in which several of their ideas prevailed, including the establishment of a counterterrorism database, online computer searches and the imposition of penalties for people who received training in terrorist camps. At the end of the evening, CSU delegate Hans-Peter Uhl grumbled that the CDU/CSU would definitely not permit a softening of Germany's security laws to take place.
Seehofer is not the only party member opposed to the FDP. Peter Müller, the governor of the southwestern state of Saarland, believes that the liberals cannot be allowed to set the pace of reforms. "In a black-yellow coalition, the CDU will ensure that not everything is subjected to the logic of the market," says Müller. He wants to see protections against termination upheld, even though the FDP is urging its potential coalition partner to at least agree to implement earlier CDU proposals. "We shouldn't make people nervous with these kinds of debates," says Müller.
Jürgen Rüttgers, his counterpart from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, agrees. Rüttgers would be the first to suffer if a black-yellow alliance were met with a wave of protests. When Rüttgers runs for re-election in 2010, the new federal government will only have been in office for a few months. For that reason, he wants to make sure that none of the decisions reached in Berlin will offend voters in his state.
Would Merkel Prefer a Left-Right Grand Coalition?
Merkel will presumably have a lot of sympathy for Rüttgers. It would also be disastrous for the chancellor if the Social Democrats were to regain power, after only five years of CDU rule, in Germany's most populous state. If that happened, the black-yellow coalition would lose its majority in the Bundestag. Merkel would be forced to coordinate all major legislative projects with the SPD, which would be tantamount to an unofficial restoration of the grand coalition.
Given the many conflicts between the CDU/CSU and the FDP, could it make sense to stick with the current grand coalition? Economic liberals like former parliamentary floor leader Friedrich Merz, as well as leading CSU politicians, are convinced that Merkel would prefer a reissue of the grand coalition.
There are many indications that they are right. From the chancellor's perspective, continued cooperation with the SPD would offer many advantages. Merkel would not have to find a new role for herself, instead remaining a head of government who stays out of party conflicts.
This would not be possible in a coalition with the FDP. Suddenly there would be a strong opposition group in the Bundestag. The unions could be mobilized to oppose government policy once again, and the SPD would continue to characterize the black-yellow coalition as a threat to social harmony. From Merkel's standpoint, these are all arguments against a black-yellow coalition.
She sometimes speaks openly about her misgivings, at least in private. "It wasn't easier with the FDP, either," she says, when one of her fellow party members complains about the Social Democrats. Merkel was a member of a CDU-FDP cabinet under former Chancellor Kohl for seven years.
If the two parties capture enough votes for a black-yellow coalition, Merkel will have no choice but to form a government with the FDP. There would be too much pressure from her party to do so. But it would not necessarily be her personal preference. "If she had her way," says a senior CDU/CSU official, "she would continue to govern with the SPD."
PETRA BORNHÖFT, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, RALF NEUKIRCH, RENÉ PFISTER