In the future, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrats will have reason to treat their junior coalition partner, the Greens, with more respect. In the September 22 nationwide elections, the Greens did better than anyone had expected–by just a percentage point or two, but enough to give the center-left a paper-thin majority and thus a second chance at running the country.

It is a chance many Germans felt they didn’t deserve, and voters let the Social Democrats know it. Four years ago, Schröder told Germans he wouldn’t expect their votes a second time if he didn’t slash the nation’s jobless rolls to 3.5 million. He didn’t; the unemployed number more than 4 million, just as when he took office. Schröder’s bungling of the economy cost the Social Democrats several dozen seats in the Bundestag and undermined its position as the country’s most popular party.

To a large extent, the Greens owe the shift in their fortunes (after nineteen consecutive losses) to the political savvy and appeal of their leader, Joschka Fischer, Germany’s respected Foreign Minister and the country’s most popular politician. The Greens leaned heavily on his celebrity status to win new voters, a contradiction that the traditionally antiauthoritarian, grassroots party has learned to live with.

The squeaker was a black eye for the red-green government, and it could easily have been much worse. All year, the left-center coalition partners trailed the conservatives in the polls, sometimes by double digits. So hollow were their campaigns that it looked like the Christian Democrats’ prickly challenger, the archconservative Bavarian Edmund Stoiber, would walk away with victory. But when the left injected some politics back into its platforms–the ecological issues around the catastrophic August floods and the government’s defiant stand against a US-led war on Iraq–the contest turned into a race again.

The red-green stand on war against Iraq–no German participation, UN mandate or not–tapped a deep resentment at the way America wields power. The Bush Administration’s stands on global warming and the Kyoto Protocol, arms control treaties, the International Criminal Court, UN dues, Israel policy and other issues rankle ordinary Germans–irritation that runs across the political spectrum. Indeed, in the end Stoiber, too, came out against German participation in an invasion. The pillars of German foreign policy–multilateralism, human rights and European unity–are more than lip service mandated by guilt; they are values etched into the postwar German consciousness. For too long, many Germans feel, the European modus operandi has been sacrificed at the altar of the transatlantic relationship–not really a relationship at all but blind subservience to Washington.

The floods and Iraq overshadowed the handful of red-green achievements of which the coalition boasted: A new citizenship law qualifies millions of foreign residents to become German citizens, and all the country’s nuclear power plants will be shut down over the next twenty years. The republic now has a same-sex marriage law, Europe’s most restrictive arms export requirements and a new consumer protection office. These measures constitute a cautious step toward redefining Germany after sixteen years of Christian Democratic rule. But the coalition partners have been tight-lipped about how they will build on them, and their tiny majority in the Bundestag will make passage of any new reforms an uphill battle.

It also remains to be seen where Schröder will go with the Iraq issue and Germany’s bruised relations with the Bush Administration. Standing up to Bush won Schröder votes, but it didn’t alter the lopsided balance of power between the United States and Europe. If the Europeans expect to pose a real alternative to America in world affairs, they must forge ahead with plans for a common foreign and security policy. Europeans know this, but progress in setting up its structures is painfully slow.

Despite the slimness of the coalition’s win, the German vote marked a welcome departure from the recent European shift to the right. The radical right-wing parties didn’t even manage 1 percent of the vote, and immigration issues barely raised their heads, a tribute to the conservatives’ restraint this time around. Now it’s up to the country’s red-green leadership to determine what they will make out of their new lease on life.