Angela Merkel, as a lot of well-wishers in the West learned to their chagrin, is no Margaret Thatcher. The German "Iron Lady" turned out to be Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's doppelganger.
Frau Merkel's Christian Democrats won only 35.2 percent of the vote in the Sunday elections, barely more than the 34.3 for Herr Schroeder's Social Democrats. She blew a 20-point lead in the public-opinion polls. Instead of riding to power on a wave of economic reform, she'll be lucky to tread water if she can even put together a coalition, form a government and become chancellor. Indeed, Frau Merkel and Chancellor Schroeder together have destroyed any chance to spark economic growth for a long time to come.
Germany, with its history of lurching quickly from one ideology to another, clearly prefers a dull status quo to dynamic possibility, gridlock to growth, polarization to progress. Like the meandering River Spree that winds through Berlin, Germany is determined to navigate sluggishly through high unemployment that would doom a government here, and preserve a welfare state that guarantees a declining standard of living for nearly everyone.
Interpretation of the election results inevitably resembles something out of Alice in Wonderland. Both front-runners claim victory, a version of he says/she says writ large. Any coalition that emerges will be a coalition of parties with contradictory notions of how to govern, with decidedly different ideas about how best to solve economic problems that are swiftly becoming intractable.
Frau Merkel is pictured in der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, as upside down; she says she's the winner because she got the most votes. Herr Schroeder is described as "giddy with euphoria" over the election results. Though a loser, the chancellor regards himself as a winner: "I feel I have a mandate to ensure that in the next four years there will be a stable government in our country under my leadership." But saying so doesn't make it so. When Frau Merkel tells the Social Democrats to face up to the fact that "they are not the strongest party," the chancellor calls her "arrogant" and "self-confident." In contemporary Germany, "self-confidence" is proof of delusion.
The most improbable coalition is the stuff of satire, joining conservatives, environmentalists and laissez-faire businessmen in what has come to be called "The Jamaican Coalition" -- the colors of the respective political parties, black, yellow and green; the colors of the Jamaican flag. The tabloid newspaper Bild plays it for laughs, depicting the leaders of the three parties in frightful dreadlocks and colorful Kingston threads.
The wrangling for power now taking place behind closed doors is likely to have little impact on Germany's dormant domestic policy, but is likely to color German-American relations. If Herr Schroeder remains in power, which is unlikely, he would surely continue to play out his anti-American attitudes whenever it serves his selfish interests. In the election campaign, he exploited anti-American envy by attacking President Bush for not taking the military option against Iran "off the table." His minister of state was particularly crass, campaigning with a poster depicting coffins draped with the American flag in the hold of cargo planes flying home from the Middle East.
Whatever slivers of silver lining there may be in the election returns are likely to turn out to be slivers of tinsel. The chancellor's party closed the gap at the end, but it still didn't win. Frau Merkel made Germans think, if only briefly, about what they must do to cut unemployment, but in the end, all they decided to do was to do nothing.
German artists and architects challenge their countrymen to look at their world in a different way, shaking up perceptions with fresh insights and aesthetics. But wishing doesn't make it so. Germans still want the false security of the drab and deteriorating welfare state. Only yesterday -- well, in 1995 -- the Reichstag was spectacularly beautiful when the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped it in silver foil, reflecting light. A stunning glass dome was then built atop the building, inviting sunlight and offering a view of the new Berlin, symbolic of the hopes and dreams of a prosperous and unified country. The future seemed glorious.
But when the newly elected parliament meets in this building to determine what kind of government they will have, it's unlikely to offer much to build on those hopes and dreams. The glass dome is a powerful image of renewal and clarity, but the new Germans are determined to look through the glass, darkly.