Germany votes


Electoral democracy thrives. In the last 24 hours, Germany, New Zealand, and Afghanistan have voted. The results in Afghanistan won't be known for some time yet, and I'll leave the analysis of the New Zealand results for others. (Here's a posting on New Zealand from the New Zealand Herald and on Afghanistan from the Washington Times.)

As for Germany, the result looks dismal to me and to the Wall Street Journal's John Fund and the Weekly Standard's Victorino Matus. The latest returns before me have the CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats and their Bavarian counterparts) with 225 seats, Gerhard Schroeder's SPD with 222, the Free Democrats with 61, the Left (former SPD and former Communist) with 54 and, the Greens with 51. No one seems clear who will form the next government. It could be a grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD, or it could be an odd-duck coalition of the CDU/CSU, the Free Democrats, and the Greens. What does seem clear is that neither the existing coalition of the SPD and Greens nor the obvious alternative of the CDU/CSU and Free Democrats will have a majority in the Bundestag, which will have about 600 members (the exact number depends, apparently, on the details of proportionate representation). And, just to complicate matters, there are a few seats to be filled in by-elections.

You can see which parties carried which parts of the country on the following map. The Medienkritik blog compares this map with a map showing local unemployment rates. A comparison of the two maps suggests that this is an electorate divided along economic lines. The former East Germany has high unemployment and almost all of it favored the SPD. Bavaria with its low unemployment was heavily CSU.

But there's another explanation for the regional splits: religion. Not current religious belief, to be sure: Germany, like most of Western Europe, is pretty much in a post-Christian era now. But historic religion, the denominational split that endured from the Reformation until just a generation or two ago. Take a look at Steven Ozment's A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People, which I was thumbing through a couple of nights ago, and turn to page 112 and the map of religious allegiance in German lands on the eve of the Thirty Years War. There you will see that the East Germany of 1949-89 was solidly Lutheran, as were northwest Germany and significant pockets of the Rhineland. Southern Germany was mostly Roman Catholic, as were large parts of the Rhineland as well. There were a few Calvinist pockets as well.

With not very many exceptions, the areas that were Roman Catholic in 1618 gave a plurality to the CDU/CSU in 2005, and the areas that were Lutheran or Calvinist gave a plurality to the SPD in 2005.

This is not just a coincidence. The same divisions can be seen in the elections of the Weimar Republic. The SPD was strongest in the Protestant areas. The Zentrum party, essentially a Catholic party, was strongest in the Catholic areas. The CDU/CSU was formed after World War II as essentially a Catholic party, something like the similarly named Christian Democrats of Italy. Like the Catholic Church, it never believed totally in free market economics (the Free Democrats are the most free-market German party). Postwar West Germany was about half Catholic and half Protestant, and the CDU/CSU was competitive with the SPD. CDU/CSU leaders formed governments from 1949 to 1966 and 1982 to 1998; a CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition governed from 1966 to 1969. In the first election after the unification of Germany, in December 1990, the old religious lines did not hold. The CDU/CSU won pluralities in all six lander in the old East Germany, and the SPD won pluralities only in the heavily Protestant lander in the old West Germany. But the old East Germany has proven much more volatile in party preference than the old West Germany in elections since then, and now it seems pretty solidly left.

It's unclear now who will form the next government of Germany and who will be chancellor. A majority of voters voted for one of the three parties of the left, but Schroeder has said he will not enter a coalition with the Left. But his word is not necessarily good. The results seem to be a repudiation of both the major parties and of their leaders, Schroeder and Angela Merkel of the CDU/CSU. Both major parties received lower percentages than in 2002. The CDU/CSU got at least 41 percent in all the preelection polls, and Merkel—and the pollsters—will have a lot of explaining to do. This seems altogether an unfortunate result. Germany clearly needs a dose of free market reform to stimulate its sluggishly growing economy and to finance its generous welfare state. But it does not seem likely to get that soon.

Yet we should keep in mind what German history teaches: Things could be much worse. If Germany is economically stagnant, it is not poor; living conditions, even if in decline, are not dire. It is a country with a solid respect for civil liberties and private property. If Schroeder has proved to be duplicitous in his foreign policy, Germany is nonetheless making positive contributions in Afghanistan and against terrorists at home. "In the course of a thousand years," the British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote in 1945, "the Germans have experienced everything except normality." Now they are at least experiencing normality.