The unpopular image of an official Grand Coalition between the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union [Christlich-Soziale Union or CSU], and the SPD had been painted on the wall time and again since 1998, but after the early Bundestag elections of September 2005, it actually became a reality. At the same time, however, it should be said that the coalition also represented a political opportunity to implement long overdue reforms that had been under discussion for years. The fact that a woman from the former GDR, Angela Merkel, has stood at the head of the government as federal chancellor since the fall of 2005 was newsworthy for a short period of time (and is symbolically meaningful) but is hardly significant in political terms. In September 2009, the Grand Coalition was superseded by a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Free Democratic Party [Freie Demokratische Partei or FDP]. The choice of coalition partners presupposes continuity, but that continuity can be deceptive. In the last two decades, the mainstream parties CDU/CSU and SPD have continuously lost votes to small parties, e.g. Alliance 90/The Greens, The Left [Die Linke], and the FDP. In the long term, this situation will open up new opportunities for coalitions between the CDU/CSU and Alliance 90/The Greens or between the CDU, the FDP, and Alliance 90/The Greens. Such coalitions already exist today at the state level. In other words: the party landscape has changed dramatically since 1990. Up to now, right-wing extremist parties have not garnered enough votes to earn a place in the Bundestag. To the left of center, the competition for votes heated up after the PDS, a regional party, merged with the WASG, a populist leftist party in the West, to form a new party, The Left [Die Linke], in 2007. The presence of new competition on the left was never more evident than in the Bundestag elections in September 2009, when the SPD registered its worst election results since the founding of the Federal Republic.
The coalition of “new possibilities,” with its focus on “redevelopment, investment, and reform” [“Sanieren, Investieren und Reformieren”], as put forth by Chancellor Merkel, has the necessary votes in both houses of parliament to push through its agenda. But when Merkel took office, she also spoke of a politics of “small steps.” Defying all prophecies of doom, the Grand Coalition survived the four-year legislative period and could point to successes at the end of its term. Overdue reforms were passed, among them federalism reforms, the raising of the retirement age, the lowering of non-wage labor costs to under 40 percent, the introduction of child benefit allowances [Elterngeld], the promise of new daycare facilities, and the liberalization of family policy. At the very moment when economic growth was increasing and the unemployment rate and the state deficit were declining, the international financial crisis of 2008/09 also hit Germany. United as seldom before, the coalition partners pulled together and passed economic stimulus packages and bank reforms that made decisive contributions to stabilizing the economy. Still, the Grand Coalition’s report card is not exclusively positive. In many areas of politics, the political structure and clashing mentalities made it harder to settle on compromise solutions. Even in areas in which reforms were sought, as in health care, it is only a matter of time before we see a reform of the reforms. But even when ideological differences came to the fore, the coalition’s work was pragmatic. In the end, when the CDU and the SPD faced off in the election battle, the coalition partners behaved in a way that prevented the usual exchange of hard, ideologically-driven blows. The election campaign was limited to a few weeks and never really got going.
In terms of demographics, German society has become older and more heterogeneous. This being the case, political problems that have been simmering for a long time but still remain only partially resolved – the question of immigration and the integration of foreigners, issues regarding family policy – are repeatedly thrust into the spotlight. Among these unresolved problems is violent right-wing radicalism, which rears its ugly head time and again, particularly in the new federal states.