If the past year’s elections in the US, Britain and France have been reminiscent of adolescents at an amusement park, Germany’s are more like the parents waving from the ground. Sunday’s results will likely resemble any other German Sunday: relaxed and uneventful.
Germany sometimes feels like a land of small towns and contented burghers because, well, it is. Berlin may have the feel of a bustling global city, but it almost stands apart from the rest of the country. For a nation of its size, there are few large cities, and the share of the population that lives in rural areas and small towns is among the highest of the developed world.
That’s a product of the country’s history. Formed in the nineteenth-century when over 400 different states, united only by a common language, joined to become one, Germany’s constituent regions have long insisted on retaining their powers and identities, along with their major centres. This colours most everything about the country.
Take its schooling, for instance. I’ve spent the last few months as a visiting professor at the University of the Marburg, and have been struck by the widespread distribution of the country’s higher learning. If a way could be found to ascertain the average quality of a country’s universities, Germany’s would, despite years of government cutbacks, come near the top of the global table. But there are no Oxfords, Cambridges or Sorbonnes here. There are just a lot of good universities, many of them, like Marburg’s, located in provincial towns.
And small towns like a slow pace of living. Coming from London, it’s a shock that first Sunday when you dash out to pick up dinner and find out that everything is closed. There’s no need to wait at crosswalks, as you can mosey across four-lane thoroughfares. I’ve come to spend my Sundays here in a sort of enforced idleness, hiking along alpine paths and then lounging in the ebbing evening warmth and listening to the breeze wax and wane like a languid conversation. Even if you want to work, you can’t.
Nevertheless, Germany’s refusal to board the twenty-four-seven, flexwork bullet-train hasn’t cost them – at least not yet. German labour productivity remains high, its manufacturers are world-beaters, and it runs a healthy trade surplus with the rest of the planet. With the economy recovering well from the Great Recession, almost everyone who wants a job can find one. Along with the affordable cost of living and universal health care, that means life is good for the average German.
So who would want to rock this boat? In a country whose post-war history has been dominated by long-serving Chancellors, Angela Merkel looks set to top them all this Sunday when she leads her Christian Democratic Party to yet another victory. To judge from his recent speeches, the Social Democratic leader Martin Schultz seems to have resigned himself to this outcome, and is just positioning himself for a place at a coalition cabinet table. To Mrs Merkel’s village-banker, he is the insurance-salesman, telling his supporters to vote for him to keep her honest.
It bears little resemblance to the bomb-throwing of other recent polls. Still, such complacency has its risks. Beneath the contented surface there is anger bubbling at the edges of German politics. It’s a bit like a London football stadium: they’ve managed to make the main stand a family-friendly place of pretzels and beer, but the adults have to cover their children’s ears whenever the chants start in the supporters’ ends.
Despite the general stability of the German system, the two main parties have seen their combined share of the vote diminish steadily over the last three decades, like an iceberg that is dwindling amid rising heat. Parties of the extreme left and right are enjoying a late surge in the campaign and may take as much as a fifth of the seats in parliament. The discordant voices in the glee club, they won’t be able to frustrate or affect the policy agenda for now. But they will stand as a reminder that if the ruling parties fail to deliver, German politics might begin to look less like a Bavarian singalong and more like a Ramstein concert.
Equally, Germany’s current prosperity rests on a foundation which is showing some cracks. Built on a bedrock of mid-sized, family-owned business, the economy is nonetheless starting to look a bit long in the tooth. As anyone who has wandered from café to café trying to find a decent Internet connection can attest, Germany’s infrastructural development has lagged in recent years. Meanwhile its administrative structures tend to encourage continuity rather than innovation.
So the good times will roll in Germany, and the beer will flow – and I, for one, can’t get enough of it. This is Germany’s moment in the sun. But that’s no guarantee that the next time around, the weather will remain this clement.
Image: Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz campaigning in Marburg