Sitting on a couch in liberal-artsy Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg at a friend's private election party munching a partisan-colored muffin and watching the latest projections on TV, I couldn't believe my eyes. The German electorate had answered the question of which party could be trusted with the fate of our country with a determined: "I don't know."
The Red-Green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his Social Democrats (SPD) hadn't received enough votes to stay in power and were therefore voted out of office; while their challengers, the center-right coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and the Free Liberals, were struggling as well, and obviously wouldn't be in a position to form a government on their own either. Everyone knew it would be tight, but an almost precise split of votes between the Social Democrats and CDU left everyone in the room clueless.
Were none of the proposals and suggested formulas for economic growth convincing enough? Apparently not.
Our election results are not a sign of a nation divided along the lines of party platforms, but rather unified in an alarming emotional uncertainty that bridges the gap even between East and West. I'm not convinced that the pessimistic perception of many Germans concerning our overall future is actually accurate, but that seems irrelevant when there's underlying fear over losing one's job. And perhaps that's not unreasonable given that there are almost five million unemployed Germans.
Who's to blame? The current administration? Partly, yes.
Many traditional SPD voters are disappointed after finding out that their party, which claimed to be on the side of the blue-collar workers, would be the one to introduce strict labor market reforms that decreased money for the unemployed.
But wouldn't a neo-liberal coalition make even greater cuts in welfare and make it easier for large companies to fire those who've become dispensable?
The question of how globalization is going to shape our society and what we will have to do to deal with its impact is an unsettling one for most Germans, and obviously neither party could come up with comforting answers.
PERSONALLY, I had hoped for another term for Schroeder's coalition despite current economic stagnation in Germany and a strong public clamor by leading corporate CEOs for a change of government.
The Social Democrats had begun to implement a number of long-term reforms that have only now begun paying off. If there is any party I trust with the painful so far successful transformation of modern Germany on such issues as health care, education, consumer protection, multi-ethnic acculturation, and a continued peaceful integration into the international community, it is the SPD/Green coalition.
Therefore I split my ballots all Germans vote twice between two contenders. With my first district ballot I voted for Wolfgang Thierse, incumbent president of the Bundestag and the SPD's candidate for my electoral district, whom I respect for his integrity, his undying commitment to an open-minded and tolerant society and an enduring awareness concerning the responsibility of Germans and their past. He had confirmed this personal perception with a speech in front of the Bundestag on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz earlier this year.
He won my constituency by a landslide.
MY SECOND national party ballot went to the Green Party because I felt that the Green ministers in Schroeder's cabinet, among them Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, had contributed to modern Germany's policies in a way that earned my trust and deserved another term.
It's uncertain whether the Greens will be able to exert a similar influence in a possible Black/Yellow/Green "Jamaica coalition" with the Conservatives and the pro-business FDP. They might be more effective making their points as a strong oppositional force.
Although not everyone at my election party shared the same political opinions, it was clear that we were all equally disappointed by these results and the fact that hours after the last ballot had been cast it was still too close to call.
In a country that has been criticized for its deadlocked political processes as well as its reluctance to implement necessary structural changes, Sunday's elections reflect a Catch-22 situation.
After a campaign in which both sides spared no effort at portraying their opponents' victory as the virtual end of a socially just and peaceful society, it's no wonder the electorate felt insecure about deciding which party would ensure not only long-awaited reforms but also political stability.
The aggressiveness and lack of respect in the pre-election campaigns seems, in retrospect, to have backfired. This was perfectly displayed by the traditional televised post-election "elephants' round" at which all the major candidates gather. Absurdly, neither major party was willing to accept defeat. Both reaffirmed their lack of interest in forming a coalition with the other.
The audience at my party gathered around the TV set found itself watching a real-life comedy. We made bets on who would be the first to face reality and make a coalition offer rejected here and now as unthinkable.
Whichever coalition is going to form the next German administration, it will be one that will have to swallow a lot of pride and start playing politics more pragmatically. The next government will have to abandon black-and-white ideological dogmatism. There will have to be less mutual bad-mouthing. And as politically inconvenient for politicians and however boring for our media, such pragmatic cooperation may be just what our country needs.
Before I left the party, I was invited to take a few of the leftover green muffins back home.
After all, it wasn't their fault.
The writer, a resident of Berlin, is a cultural exchange coordinator for the Goethe Institute and a freelance journalist.