Germany, essentially rudderless since inconclusive elections Sept. 18, finally has a new chancellor and government. Whether they can actually govern the world's third-largest economy looks to be an unusually tricky task.
The new chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a first for Germany, a woman and an Easterner. She replaces Gerhard Schroeder, who led the country to increased voter dissatisfaction the last seven years. His departure represents something of a milestone, the passing of a generation of leftist politicians who came of age in the social protests of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The central task of the new government is reinvigorating Germany's stagnant economy, beset by unemployment over 11 percent, gaping budget deficits and competition from low-cost manufacturing in the new European Union members to the East.
Schroeder tried to attack the problem with piecemeal reforms that proved ineffective. Merkel offered the prospect of more dramatic reform and deregulation that appeared to be well-received in the public opinion polls.
But faced with a hard choice, the German electorate flinched, giving each major party just over a third of the vote and Merkel a slight four-seat edge in parliament. Yes, the voters want economic growth, but, no, they don't want the budget, social welfare and labor protection cuts necessary to attain it.
Until the German electorate jumps one way or another, Merkel is stuck with this conundrum. She had to be a skilled politician to come out of obscurity and beat the ruling old-boy network to attain the chancellorship. Now she has to prove she's something of a magician, too.