Voters refused to give a majority in Germany

In Germany's general election Sunday, described as the most inconclusive in the country's postwar history, voters refused to give a clear-cut majority to any party. Earlier in the campaign, the opposition alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had maintained a significant lead over the center-left governing coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, but in the final stages of the campaign the SDP-Green alliance regained ground, with both camps fighting neck and neck.

The shape of a new government now hinges on how coalition talks develop in the next few weeks. The election was fought mainly on domestic economic issues, including high unemployment, jobs creation, stagnant growth and immigration. Ms. Angela Merkel, head of the conservative Christian Democrats, called for a strengthening of corporate prowess, saying that failures in the economic policy of the seven-year Schroeder administration had "weakened the Germany economy." On the other hand, Chancellor Schroeder, who puts a premium on social policies, countered the criticism, saying that his economic reform programs are producing results, and appealed for "sustained efforts toward reform."

Reform is the catchword. In this respect, there seem to be no decisive differences between the economic policies of the two main parties. This could open the way for policy accommodation between the two camps, given in particular the razor-thin difference in their voter support, with the CDU winning 35.2 percent of the vote compared with 34.3 percent of the SPD, according to the latest results (voting in one district, Dresden, has been postponed till early next month due to the death of a candidate).

The biggest challenge for Germany -- which, along with Japan and Italy, was defeated in World War II -- is to resolve its postwar problems, particularly economic disparities stemming from the unification of the former East and West Germanys. Immediately after the unification, technology and capital flooded into the eastern part of the country, creating a boom in economic development. Since the boom ended, however, the "development gap" between the two regions has become all too apparent.

The population in the former East Germany has dwindled from 17 million at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall to 15 million at present. Young people in the east flocked to the west in search of jobs in large cities such as Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. The jobless rate in the former East Germany now stands at about 20 percent, twice the level in what was once West Germany.

During the campaign, a candidate of the Merkel camp rubbed the nerve of eastern voters in the wrong way by saying that the former East Germany remains a "heavy burden" on today's Germany. The Left Party, the former ruling party in East Germany, joined hands with the leftist group of the SPD to form a moderate leftist front separately from the Schroeder administration. The rise of leftist forces has cut into the electoral support of the two main parties, making it impossible for either of them to get a single majority. Correcting Germany's east-west economic disparity has been the most important domestic challenge for the Schroeder administration, and will remain so for the next administration, whoever takes the helm.

Foreign policy is also a critical realm. On Schroeder's watch, Germany, along with France, opposed the war against Iraq. During the campaign, Ms. Merkel called for repairing Berlin's damaged ties with Washington, but made no mention of the U.S. military action. On the issue of the Turkish bid to enter the European Union, Ms. Merkel, known as an opponent of Turkish entry, emphasized the need for a "privileged partnership," implying that she is opposed to full membership.

Germany has the largest GDP and population of any EU member state. The European Central Bank, which oversees the euro currency, is located in Frankfurt. At a time when prospects for the ratification of the European constitution remain clouded, the policies to be taken by a new German administration are bound to have a profound impact on the construction of a greater Europe.

One thing is certain: No matter what coalition government may come into being, efforts for reconstruction must be expedited. With neither of the two largest parties enjoying a clear-cut mandate, it is hoped that Germany's political parties, particularly, the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Democrats, make every possible effort to develop a lasting regime that is both competent and stable, The Japan Times reports.

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