The supposedly consensual and orderly Germans are fighting one another as hard after the election as before it. In a numerical stalemate, each of the two major parties claims the chancellorship and the right to lead a new coalition. And the nearly 78 percent of the citizenry who voted disregarded journalists, pollsters, professors and the elites, above all from business, who instructed them to abandon the welfare state and return to subordination to the United States. Fifty-two percent of the electorate voted for the opposite.

The German left is represented by three parties. The Social Democrats, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a brilliant comeback from an uninterrupted series of losses in state elections, got 34 percent of the vote–down four points from 2002, but they began the campaign at 26 percent in the polls. The Greens maintained their 8 percent while the new Left Party, made up of Social Democratic dissidents in the west and former Communists in the east, won nearly 9 percent. Together they would have a majority of 327 seats (out of 613).

On the right, the Christian Democratic Union and its ally, the Christian Social Union, went down 3.5 points, to 35 percent. Their leader, the eastern German Angela Merkel, had good reason to look crushed in her TV appearances on election night, since she began the campaign at nearly 50 percent in the polls. The Free Democrats, a market party of the affluent, got nearly 10 percent, improving its score considerably. Neither the Social Democrats and their Green coalition partner, nor the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, come close to a majority.

The terms “left” and “right” are too simple. The Social Democrats amputated the welfare state to try to save it–but could not stop unemployment from rising to more than 11 percent, with corresponding anxiety among the employed. The Greens concentrated on environmental programs and on civil rights and integrating immigrants. The coalition’s foreign policy, along with that of France, rejected George W. Bush’s unilateralism and refused to join the United States in its war against Iraq.

The Left Party’s western leader is Oskar Lafontaine, who was the Social Democrats’ chairman and finance minister but who quit after only a few months in office in disgust over Schröder’s importation to Germany of Tony Blair’s market-oriented “Third Way” (the eastern component of the Left Party consists of very gray ex-Communists led by the colorful Gregor Gysi). The Social Democrats cannot forgive Lafontaine’s desertion–even though many of them agree with his policies. They resent the Left Party as schismatics and will not take them back into the church. And the Left Party despises the Social Democrats’ alleged apostasy. In secular Germany, religious passion is entirely political.

The right is not, by US standards, so right. The Christian parties, influenced by theological ideas of social justice, were more committed to the welfare state than many of our own Democrats. Even so, Merkel, who confuses the Western welfare state with the neo-Stalinism under which she grew up, echoed the social Darwinism of Germany’s most ardent capitalists. She shoved a flat-taxer, contemptuous of the welfare state, to the front of her campaign, and he became a huge target of opportunity for the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party. He retreated to academic obscurity, but not before wrecking his sponsor’s chances. On foreign policy the Christian Democrats are the traditional party of subordination to the United States, but they are also the party of European integration–incompatible projects. Merkel was careful not to visit Bush before the election, but it is clear that she would fly over for orders after taking office. That was another factor in the party’s losses: Dislike of American empire is a matter of German consensus.

What now? One obvious coalition would consist of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats. The last, after all, were partners of earlier Social Democratic leaders Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. The Free Democrats have declared that they will not even talk to the Social Democrats–but perhaps that will change. Another combination would be Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens. This coalition is possible–but it would make us wonder when Bush will invite Ralph Nader to Crawford. Moreover, the Greens would not accept US domination in the transatlantic relationship.

That leaves the so-called “grand coalition” of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. There would be nothing grand about it, and it would break up after a year or so. However, Schröder insists that the Social Democrats will join a government only under his chancellorship, and the party is behind him. Merkel’s party position is far weaker; in fact, she could be ousted from her post if she’s not able to form a government. In the campaign the Social Democrats and Schröder rediscovered their souls as proponents of the welfare state. The Christian Democrats lost theirs by capitulation to the ideology of the market.

According to the Constitution, within a month of the election the President must propose a chancellor candidate to be voted up or down by Parliament. If there is no majority approval, Parliament itself can nominate a candidate, who must also receive a majority. Thereafter, a plurality suffices. The President, Horst Köhler, could disregard a plurality (but not a majority) and order new elections. Köhler is officially neutral, but this former managing director of the International Monetary Fund is an ally of the market wing of the Christian Democrats. How neutral he will be is a question. Merkel or another candidate from her party could win election with a plurality over Schröder or another Social Democrat–if the Left Party abstains. That’s the intention of its leaders, but the vote is secret, and parliamentarians could follow their own counsel. A number of coalitions and outcomes are possible. Merkel or Schröder or both could be replaced by their parties, and new elections could follow a total stalemate. Meanwhile, German business leaders are demanding a government responsive to themselves. To make the point, the giant conglomerate Siemens has now fired several thousand workers. Germany is in for a very turbulent month. Perhaps the citizens, having once defied their elites, will find a way to do so again.