Suddenly, there it was, on the front cover of the magazine of one of the biggest German newspapers: the raised middle finger of Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrat challenger to Angela Merkel, chancellor. The Germans know themselves well, they are decent, law-abiding types, and a potential Bundeskanzler – chancellor – simply does not do such things. Just imagine, he could soon start doing the same thing to the Russian president if Vladimir Putin keeps insisting the poison gas did not come from Bashar al-Assad.
I am writing this piece on Minorca where I live for part of the year, far away from everything, but among my olive trees there is a satellite dish that can transport me to Germany. And in recent weeks I have seen German politicians dancing across the screen in a ballet that was composed by nobody: interviews, opinion polls, rounds of discussions directed by a number of sharply polished female moderators who use a firm hand to keep the peace between the warring parties gathered around the table.
First, there was the great debate between Ms Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, and Mr Steinbrück. He was once her finance minister when the two served together in a grand coalition from 2005-09. Now he says that her centre-right coalition – in which the SPD was replaced by the liberal Free Democrats – went on to cause four years of stagnation, and that she exacerbated the euro crisis by constantly changing course. Mr Steinbrück is a sturdily built man, with an air of great competence; his words are relatively good-humoured, but can have an aggressive edge. No one would imagine that these two people had worked together daily, for four years, to lead the most powerful country in Europe through difficult times.
Then last weekend, two things occurred that threw the dancers suddenly out of step. Firstly, the Christian Social Union, Ms Merkel’s sister party, gained an absolute majority in regional elections in their home state of Bavaria, one of Germany’s largest and an economic powerhouse. This was hard political reality, not an opinion poll – and it was bad news not only for the SPD, but particularly for the FDP.
At that point, the cards were reshuffled. Who is to rule with whom? The voter as choreographer. If in Sunday’s general election the FDP does not get the 5 per cent needed for representation in parliament, everything is pointing to a pas de deux between the CDU-CSU and the SPD – the so-called black-red grand coalition. But Mr Steinbrück has said he does not want that. Will he have to put up with it? Difficult. So will his party have to drop him? And send him limping back into the wings as a lonely prima ballerina? Or will his party join forces with the much redder red of the eloquent and witty Gregor Gysi, leader of the leftwing Linke party and the star of all those TV discussions? He may be popular as an individual, but still has the shadow of the communist east Germany DDR hanging over him. And what about the Greens, tripped up by their proposal for a meat-free day every week, which proved as hard to digest as one of those big Bavarian sausages and did not go down well with a large proportion of the electorate?
There was also the fact that back in the 1980s, Jürgen Trittin, the leader of the Greens, in a fit of short-sighted optimism about human nature, had signed off a pamphlet calling for the decriminalisation of paedophilia, which now serves as grist to the mill for his opponents, since in politics nothing is ever forgotten.
So what happens now? This week Mr Steinbrück was interviewed by Margareta Slomka, the ice queen of German news television. What was that finger all about? Her questions are like daggers, delivered with the rhetoric of someone who has a firm hold on her victim, as she looks at him with bright-blue eyes, in a scene from a play by Bertolt Brecht. The finger? Theatrics, no big deal. And the grand coalition? Although he stood there perfectly calm, he danced around the question; he stuck to his statement, but in such a way that viewers could still keep on wondering, and keep on speculating, because there is still the joker of the FDP, which in this current coalition provides the vice-chancellor and foreign minister.
Earlier this year when the FDP was at risk of disappearing from the regional parliament of Lower Saxony, the desperate party begged CDU supporters for their votes. The ironical result was that while they got those votes, the CDU fell short and both parties lost office. Now the FDP wallflower may well disappear from the national parliament. There was little harmony between the ruling parties, and that makes it difficult to dance. However, without the FDP, Ms Merkel will be at the mercy of certain wishes of the CSU, including a toll for foreigners on German motorways.
I am not allowed to vote in my large neighbouring country, but of course I am against that idea. Just for foreigners? How do they come up with such notions? So, a grand German coalition, after all? The Dutch parliamentary year has just begun. We have a similar arrangement, a coalition of left and right. The new monarch went to parliament and read out his first King’s Speech, a gloomy story written for him by the politicians. The Dutch coalition has been in power for a year now. Opinion polls among the supporters of both parties reveal that more than 80 per cent of them did not have a good word to say about our government. If Berlin ever looks at The Hague, it might later be said that Mr Steinbruck had been the real clairvoyant.
The writer is author of Roads to Berlin, which is published in paperback next month