Angela Merkel's Bittersweet Victory

Angie kept her promise. Germans wanted a stable government with a clearer ideological line. They sought to put an end to chasing after consensus at the price of the lowest common denominator. They wanted to return to democratic normality and a healthy struggle between coalition and opposition. And she gave them what they asked for. For the first time since the defeat of her mentor Helmut Kohl in 1998, the black of the Christian Democrats and the gold of the Free Democrats will rule the Bundestag in Berlin.

Nevertheless, a slightly bitter taste accompanied the sweetness of victory. Despite her enormous personal popularity, support for Merkel's conservative bloc fell to a record low of 33.8 percent of the vote. The political deja vu mirrored 2002. In a newspaper caricature published a day after that year's national election, the enormous figure of Joschka Fischer is seen congratulating a tiny Gerhard Schroeder. Social Democrat Chancellor Schroeder owed his victory then to Fischer, a minor coalition partner and leader of the Greens, just as Merkel owes hers to Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats (FDP).

How can the election results be explained?

First, revulsion for the "grand coalition" of Germany's two major parties - and its paralysis - was expressed in the lowest voter turnout (71.2 percent) in the country's modern history, and the significant strengthening of small parties at the expense of the "Volksparty" (people's party), a nickname for both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who appeal to a wide audience.

And it can be explained by the triumph of (economic) liberalism. Westerwelle, the leader of the liberals, has brought his party to a historic achievement: the position of kingmaker. When the 2005 election results were announced, Westerwelle adamantly refused to join the left-wing government headed by Schroeder. Rightist voters who felt betrayed by Merkel's tilt toward the left did not forget, and defected in high numbers to the liberals.

Then there is the small-party factor. Members of the social- democratic coalition lamented that the successes of the outgoing coalition were credited to the senior partner, and its failures to the minor parties. But the greatest and heaviest fall in support for the major parties since the Federal Republic of Germany's establishment in 1948 may be attributed to the effect of the new, radical Die Linke party and the strengthening of the Greens, now headed by Cem Ozdemir, the country's first political leader of Turkish ancestry.

While surveys show that 45 percent of Germans have a strong dislike for Die Linke, it was formed in the large vacuum created on the left when the grand coalition was established. Die Linke promised to fight on behalf of the many poor and unemployed Germans. About 26 percent of them gave De Linke their votes.

Sinking support for the European left is also a factor. The left throughout Europe is, paradoxically, in the throes of a serious political crisis, because the public in fact relies on the ability of the conservative bloc to deal with the global economic crisis. So it was the German social-democrats who absorbed a stinging electoral blow - and at a time when the public is actually quite tired of extreme capitalism and what is seen as the banking system's greed.

Where is the extreme right? Germany's extreme right has never managed to cross the 5 percent minimum threshold in national elections required to win representation in the federal government. In this week's election, they received 681,000 votes (1.5 percent of the vote), compared to 858,000 in 2005, a reduction in strength. In this election, even in the state of Brandenburg, where there has been a neo-Nazi presence for a decade, they failed to get a representative elected to the local legislature.

Chancellor of all Germans

What may be expected from the new German government?

On the internal front, Merkel promised radical reforms in the 2005 elections. But the grand coalition held her to a pragmatic approach, so much so that some on the right claimed she was a "socialist in disguise." Now the chancellor will have to show her true colors. Some say that, released from her partnership with the left, Merkel will be able to turn into a real Iron Lady, as she was known in the previous election, a term that was not justified by her actions at the time.

Her coalition partners will demand that she institute their liberal economic policy, but the large budget deficit (expected to reach 6 per cent of the GNP in 2010, twice the amount permitted by European Union regulations), rising unemployment and the fact that Germany has only now emerged from its sharpest recession since World War II are likely to dictate a different pace. A hint in this direction may be found in Merkel's promise this week to be "the chancellor of all Germans."

On the international scene, it is expected that she will put an end to two-headed rule and the vagueness that once characterized her foreign diplomacy will disappear - while the pro-American policies supported by the liberals in her coalition will be more pronounced and unequivocal. These changes will be added to the assertiveness Merkel began to exhibit in her first term, for example in her demands for human rights in China and Russia, and her struggle against anti-Semitism, expressed in her widely-publicized insistence that Pope Benedict XVI, a German, explicitly counter Holocaust-denying Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson.

The profound responsibility that Merkel feels for Israel stems not only from the Holocaust, but also from the deeds of the East German republic in which she grew up. She made her third visit here in two years in March 2008. In an interview with Haaretz in September 2005, the only interview she has given to Israeli media to date, Merkel promised "to fight anti-Semitism with all the means at our disposal - to energetically deepen our relations with Israel," which she termed, "a precious treasure."

In June 2002, the previous leader of the liberal Free Democrats, Wolfgang Gerhard (the current leader, Westerwelle, served as his deputy), promised in an Haaretz interview that "we will never allow anyone to cast a doubt on the right of Israel to exist." These remarks were made against the background of a tempest that raged in Germany after a liberal member of the Bundestag, of Syrian descent, compared the activities of the Israeli army to those of the Nazis and attacked what he termed "the influence of the Zionist lobby" on international media. The party's deputy secretary Juergen Moellemann further inflamed the atmosphere when he said that he understood the actions of suicide bombers inside Israel.

In his latest signals to Israel, it may be seen that Westerwelle, the next German foreign minister, seeks to blot out this episode and emphasize instead the tradition of deep friendship his party feels for Israel. This friendship has been prominent in the behavior of important party figures such as Count Otto Lambsdorf, who conducted the successful 2000 negotiations for reparations for forced workers, and former foreign ministers Hans Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel, the latter having worked for Israel's special status in the European Union.