It's always the same. Every four years, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats have to explain to us why they're still together, even though they don't really love each other anymore, and don't even really get on that well. During the election campaign, interviews with the party leaders are like watching relationship counselling, where a weary and embittered couple have been given the task of listing all the things they like about the other.
There's much talk about what they "owe" each other. FDP leader Philipp Rösler told Der Spiegel last month, "In my party's difficult times, I could always rely on Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer. I will never forget that personally." Anything else to say about the loves of his political life? "I always found the tone within the government coalition to be very pleasant." Jesus guys, get a room.
But on one issue after another, the CDU and the FDP don't actually agree. The FDP would like to get rid of the "Solidarity" payment – the extra tax to help support the former East Germany, while the CDU wants to stick to the original plan of allowing it to lapse in 2019. The CDU – spurred on by their Bavarian Catholic sister party the CSU – introduced the Betreuungsgeld (allowance for not sending your children to kindergarten), but the FDP only accepted it as a compromise in the "coalition contract", in other words, they accepted it so they could have some power. The ever-cautious CDU (like the SPD) wants to introduce a rent cap to prevent tenant exploitation and a property bubble, the FDP opposes the idea, and wants to reduce taxes to make it easier for real estate companies to invest in the market and construction companies to build. Despite the NSA revelations, the CDU is not interested in changing the current data protection laws – they think security concerns are more important – while the FDP wants to stop all mass data storage by the authorities. Even on the CDU's plan to subsidize renewables as part of Germany's big "energy transition" from nuclear power, the FDP sees itself as what Rösler calls a "corrective," often impeding the efforts of CDU Environment Minister Peter Altmaier to get that particular fucker on the road.
The only thing keeping this loveless marriage of power together is the fact that Merkel and the SPD's Peer Steinbrück keep denying all the tension between them. The pheromones were in the air at last week's TV debate. They had a four-year fling from 2005 to 2009, when Steinbrück was Merkel's finance minister, and you could tell, in Steini's gallant refusal to attack Merkel with any righteous outrage. The insults that Steinbrück has been flinging at his old boss on the campaign trail make it really obvious. It's like when you're 11 and you don't know to how to express your love to the girl you fancy, so you kick her under the desk to attract her attention.
Merkel and Steinbrück are the same type of politician – pragmatic, safe, power-obsessed – and their instincts are rooted in the Federal Republic's vast middle class sensibility – they represent the reactionary caution that makes Germany tick. They're mild. They are mildness. The CDU are mildly Christian, while the SPD are mildly socialist, but they believe the same thing – that governing is the job of a professional government, that the state has a responsibility to its people. The more drastic ideas of the other parties – the libertarianism of the FDP, the environmentalism of the Greens, and the more proper socialism of Die Linke – are all okay, but they only work if they're bland as a curry in a German Indian restaurant.
In fact, as those other parties have grown more confident (except the FDP, who are becoming increasingly aware that Merkel doesn't really love them) in the past decades, the CDU and the SPD have grown together, circling their wagons around their greying voters. And for now, that's how Germans like it. Even if Merkel's "preferred" coalition of the CDU and the FDP does prevail on September 22, the SPD's control of the Bundesrat means that, in fact, Germany will still be governed by an informal "grand" coalition. Well, mildly grand anyway.