Germany’s Five Election Unknowns

On September 18, Germany will hold an election that contains at least five unknowns. If it were an equation, it would be impossible to solve. Fortunately, politics is not mathematics – though, unfortunately, this means that there are no clear solutions. Indeed, even in the opaque terms of contemporary politics, the German case is particularly vexing.

The first unknown is why the election is taking place at all. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had another fifteen months to go before the end of the electoral term, and it seemed that he had no difficulty mobilizing his admittedly slender majority in parliament.

To be sure, the big issues that the Federal President listed when he dissolved the Bundestag are real. The fiscal position is, by German standards, unacceptable, and public debt at current levels is contrary to the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact and a burden on future generations. Demographic developments alone require major reforms of social policy. Moreover, the institutions of the federal system do not permit decisions to be made either expeditiously or clearly.

None of this is new, nor will it be changed by an election. So it is not obvious to many people why they are voting.