Germany has been dubbed Europe’s most powerful country, the EU’s “indispensable nation,” but it would be hard to tell from its current election season. The country’s leading politicians have been focused on such weighty matters as whether foreigners should be charged for the privilege of driving on German autobahns and how to calibrate pension rates for civil servants. In the eyes of critics inside and outside the country, the election battle has not only been boring -- it has also been deeply irresponsible, a willful repression of the important issues facing the country. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s most eminent intellectual, has charged the elites with a “collective failure.”
It is worth being more specific about what sort of failure this is. That the German public has been deprived of a debate about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership is not particularly tragic. By all accounts, her politics of muddling through are highly popular among Germans; even if Germans were presented with a starker alternative to her than Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party candidate, they would likely have gone with Merkel. The real failure is that, in Germany’s first federal election since the outbreak of the eurocrisis in 2010, the fate of the European project has barely figured at all. By now, Europeans should have woken up to the fact of profound financial and political interdependence in the eurozone -- yet they still conduct elections as if they were entirely national affairs.
The curious sleepiness of the election campaign has to do with two peculiar circumstances. One is that Merkel has sought to recycle the strategy that worked for her four years ago, which goes by the awkward name “asymmetric demobilization.” Merkel either says as little as possible about controversial topics or explicitly adopts many of her opponents’ positions, in the hope that the supporters of opposition parties will feel that nothing much is at stake, and hence stay away from the polls. It is