So, that was a near miss, but everything's turned out all right in the end. The members of the Social Democratic Party have voted "yes" to another coalition with Angela Merkel, with a fairly clear majority. The new government is to be in place by the end of March, before Easter.
It has been a tough battle getting there, with initial failed coalition negotiations and top politicians like the ephemeral SPD star Martin Schulz falling by the wayside. Merkel was under considerable pressure because she seemed to be simply unable to find the necessary majority for a government in this new world of multiple small parties.
This was a new situation for Germany. Since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949, one of the two main parties simply looked for a partner, or was even able to govern alone. For 12 years, the state of things has been even more predictable. Angela Merkel was and remained the chancellor. Everything else was of only marginal interest to the rest of the world.
Since the entry of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) into the German parliament, this comfortable way of doing politics has come to an end. The formerly big parties are becoming smaller, and the small ones are becoming bigger, making achieving a governing majority more and more complicated.
The search for Germany's identity
This new situation reflects what is happening in Germany. The two major parties have disappointed their traditional voters so badly that the latter have been voting in an increasingly radical fashion, both on the right and the left of the political spectrum. The parties have no political concepts to offer in the face of the fears afflicting many Germans, who are unsure and overwhelmed and have the feeling that their familiar ways of life are under threat. Politicians from the political mainstream have given no answers to questions about how globalization, integration and identity all fit together.
At the level of foreign affairs as well, it is unclear what role Germany wants to play in this world of Trump, Xi and Putin and what it ultimately means to take on greater responsibility in European foreign and defense policy decisions.
The past months of intense political struggle could be the clarion call that Germany urgently needs. Politicians must give voters the feeling that they are being listened to again. They have to prove they have understood that ordinary people also have an agenda that can be taken into consideration without reverting to old, dangerous forms of nationalism. At the same time, the grand coalition must find a way of bringing differences to bear even within the alliance so that the parties retain their separate identities. The only thing that can stop them losing voters is having clearer, more distinctive profiles.
If they do not succeed in building those profiles, both parties will go down together at the next election, in 2021 at the latest. In this search for a distinctive identity, the fear of receiving applause from the wrong side should be largely ignored; at the same time, however, it is not allowable to go looking for voters in the right-wing nationalist milieu of the AfD.
Important alarm signal
Angela Merkel can now form a government. The long road leading to this point is a clear signal that Germany's political course must be renegotiated. The entry of the AfD into the Bundestag has brought about an encouraging and promising revival of the culture of debate. The Green politician Cem Özdemir was one of the first to show, in a brilliant speech, how to face up to doctrines of hate and exclusion. Özdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, showed that love for and pride in Germany do not have to be associated with any old Nazi-style concepts, but can instead be a source of power that helps in the defense of the pluralistic, freedom-based social contract defining the country. Such speeches have not been heard in a long while.
So now, the time has come when the better argument will win the day; the era of a prescribed lack of alternatives is over. This is a good start after the phase of political paralysis that has been going on for longer than just the five months during which Germany has been without a functioning government.