The scenes were almost touching in their intimacy earlier this week. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier were all smiles at the press conference called to discuss the details of Germany's historic €50 billion ($65.37 billion) economic stimulus package. Merkel praised the decisive step taken by her governing coalition. Steinmeier spoke of an "alliance of reason."
The Berlin bonhomie made it easy to forget that the two politicians come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. But the cease-fire between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and Steinmeier's Social Democrats (SPD) isn't likely to last for too long. Germany is entering a 2009 that is packed full of elections. Voters in five of the country's 16 states will be heading to the polls to choose new governments, nationwide general elections are scheduled for Sept. 27, and the country chooses a new president in May. June 7 European Parliament elections rounds out what German pundits are calling the "super election year."
More important than the sheer number of elections though are the implications the series of votes has for politics in Germany. Voters in recent years have seen an increase in the number of parties they have to choose from -- and that could create, from the perspective of political pundits and prognosticators, something of an electoral free-for-all. The result could be two and even three party alliances never before experienced in Germany.
"In other years with a similar number of elections, it was possible to predict what the results would look like," Dietmar Herz, a political scientist at the University of Erfurt, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "This time, there is simply no way to guess. This year will show whether the party system in Germany has changed in a fundamental way."
To be sure, the general campaign in Germany will be dominated by the traditional heavyweight battle between the SPD and CDU. Steinmeier has been chosen by the SPD as the party's candidate to take Merkel's spot in the Chancellery, meaning he will be spending the year campaigning against his current coalition partner.
German Politics in Flux
But aside from the delicate dance such a campaign will entail, it is the smaller parties which have injected the greatest uncertainty into this election year. For the first decades of its post-war existence, Germany was governed by one of the two large parties in coalition with the liberal, business-friendly Free Democrats. In the 1990s, the Green Party entered the fray. Now, though, with the Left Party having attracted a significant chunk of voters away from the SPD in recent years, the entire left side of Germany's political spectrum is in flux.
"We have always thought that Germany's party landscape would become more like that found elsewhere in Europe," Herz said, referring to the tendency for countries in continental Europe to have numerous political parties. "It now looks like this year might be that year."
To see the kind of confusion such a newly shuffled political landscape can create, one need look no further than the state of Hesse. The state has the somewhat unique honor of holding Germany's first state elections two years in a row. In early 2008, voters split evenly between the CDU and the SPD, while at the same time giving the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party all enough votes to take seats in the state parliament.
The result was a year of political stalemate. Neither the SPD nor the CDU showed much interest in a "grand coalition" pairing the two parties, the CDU result wasn't strong enough to form a government with the FDP, and the Greens elected not to join forces with the conservative camp. And of particular note, SPD efforts to form a government with the Greens using support from the Left Party -- viewed widely with suspicion due to the party's roots leading back to the East German communists -- crumbled amid bitter infighting. It was a collapse that cost Hesse SPD leader Andrea Ypsilanti her political future and resulted in a call for new elections.
Had the SPD-Left Party alliance worked, it would not have been a first. The city-state of Berlin has been governed by such a "red-red" coalition for the last seven years. But many in western Germany remain highly skeptical of the party and Ypsilanti herself had promised to have nothing to do with them, before reversing herself. Indeed, this time around, Hesse seems likely to recall Germany's more staid political past. Polls indicate that voters on Sunday will punish the SPD for its Left Party flirt and that the CDU will be able to form a government with the FDP.
Thrown into Doubt
Most of the other state elections this year seem to have the potential to descend into the same kind of political infighting seen in Hesse last year. In Saarland, which votes at the end of August, the Left Party is almost even with the SPD in the polls, opening the door to a possible coalition between the two parties -- or even a three-way alliance with the Greens. The eastern state of Brandenburg, which votes on the same day as the late September nationwide elections, could likewise see an SPD-Left Party alliance, with the far-left party currently polling 27 percent, well ahead of the CDU.
Even the eastern state of Thuringia, which also goes to the polls at the end of August, has been thrown into doubt. Late last year, it already began to look as though the CDU would not be able to repeat its 2004 dominance. Then, on New Year's Day the state's governor, Dieter Althaus, was involved in a horrific ski accident in Austria. The woman he collided with died and Althaus himself is still recovering from severe head injuries. Once he emerges from the hospital, the governor may have to head to the courthouse to answer potential involuntary manslaughter charges -- hardly a good start to his re-election campaign. An October poll showed the Left Party poised to make strong gains in that state, too, with support of 30 percent of voters.
What the rising Left and crowded political spectrum means for Germany remains unclear. The SPD in particular has had a difficult time coming to terms with competition to its left. Even though more than 50 percent of Germans voted for left-of-center parties in the 2005 general elections, the SPD saw little benefit. The party leadership vowed not to work together with the Left Party on the national level, resulting in the SPD's taking on the role of junior coalition partner in Chancellor Merkel's "grand coalition."
Outside of the federal government in Berlin, though, all bets are off. "The SPD will cooperate with the Left Party in the states," Herz said. "And you will see such cooperation all across the country."
Weak Voice for Germany
In short, it could be a difficult campaign for Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Even Hesse's failed attempt to form an informal alliance with the Left Party created enormous problems for the SPD's national leadership, helping to force out Kurt Beck as party leader. Should any of the four state elections prior to the September nationwide vote result in an SPD-Left Party alliance, Steinmeier could very well end up with a similar credibility problem.
Even the normally benign presidential election in May could create problems for the SPD. Germany's president is largely symbolic and is chosen by a body known as the Federal Assembly, made up of parliamentarians in Berlin and representatives from the state parliaments. Should President Horst Köhler, who is supported by the CDU, be re-elected, it seems likely to give Merkel's party a boost going into September.
But if the vote is indecisive in the first two rounds of voting, there is a chance that the SPD presidential candidate, Gesine Schwan, could sneak past on a simple majority -- if the Left Party decides to support her. Should that happen, Steinmeier will once again face criticism that his party is willing to court the far-left ex-communists.
In the end, of course, it may not matter a bit how the state elections and the presidential vote play out. The campaign promises to focus squarely on the economy, putting both Steinmeier, who is also Germany's foreign minister, and Merkel, who has staked much of her reputation on her foreign policy expertise, at something of a disadvantage.
And Germany as well. "We can't forecast anything," Herz said. "The only thing we can say for sure is that this year, Germany will have a weak voice" on the international stage.