THE GERMAN election, after a shallow campaign, comes to the widely predicted conclusion. Both the shallowness and the predictability can be taken as signs of stability, in a country where things are going well.
The message from the German voters is that they like Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, but they have some lingering doubts about the leftist elements in his Social Democratic Party. There was a significant increase in the vote for the smaller partner in the governing coalition, the Free Democratic Party. It is, in effect, a liberal businessmen's party. This shift will presumably confirm the centrist character of the government, further isolating the young socialists who occasionally tug on the chancellor's left arm.
Many Americans will probably find these election returns reassuring. Franz Josef Strauss, the Christian Democratic candidate for chancellor, was something of a paradox. Deeply conservative, he gave an impression of a passion and barely controlled energy suggesting anything but a settled and cautious policy. He gave an unlimited priority to the Atlantic alliance and the German relationship to the United States. But he expressed it with a zeal and vehemence that made Americans uneasy, as well as Germans.
Now elected for another four years, Chancellor Schmidt's coalition has been in power for 11 years. As governments acquire experience, they tend to lose flexibility. No large new departures or initiatives seem to be in prospect in German politics. The coalition began its tenure, under Willy Brandt, with a series of brilliant diplomatic openings to Eastern Europe. But that line of development has slowed to a stop in recent years, for reasons well beyond the control of any German government -- most recently, because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At home, the German economy has become immensely strong. Output per capita, at least in the conventional reckoning, is now higher than in the United States. But the growth rates are down, the country is beginning to run a substantial foreign deficit because of oil prices, and the size of the public debt was a central issue in the campaign just ended. There won't be much money for new social ventures for some time. For Germany, the prospect is for very little deviation from the established course. Its government is among the most competent in the world -- but it is, for the present, playing a defensive game.