State Election Debacle What's Wrong With Germany's Green Party

Germany's once high-flying Green Party is foundering in many states. After a disastrous election result in North Rhine-Westphalia, the party is promising change, but it may come too late for September's national poll.

Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Green Party

Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Green Party

Not long ago, Germany's environmentalist Green Party promised a "new sound." They wanted to convey a warmer, fuzzier feeling ahead of German parliamentary elections in September, and the party also wanted to show more courage. It was a response to the party's stagnant survey numbers in recent months.

This week, though, the statments coming out of the party are more reminiscent of the North Pole. "We lost this election," said Cem Özdemir, the party's co-chief and lead candidate in the national election.

The morose remark came in response to Sunday's election debacle in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. After four years as the junior coalition party in the state's government, the Greens were broadsided at the polls, with voters handing victory to the center-right Christian Democrats. His co-leading candidate, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, said the party had managed to persuade its core voters, but nobody else. Ouch.

The once high-flying Green Party, which was part of a federal government coalition with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrats (SPD) from 1998 to 2005, has seldom been quite this critical of itself, even after election defeats in other states. Green leaders, not unlike other parties, tend to point to external circumstances for their poor performance or they claim that their message "didn't get across to voters."

This time around, though, the Greens aren't pointing any fingers. The election result in Germany's most populous state was no less than a disaster, with the party down from 11.3 percent in 2012 to just 6.4 percent on Sunday. What does the loss mean at the national level and where does the party go from here?

1. The Greens have failed a key test.

The coalition government pairing the Social Democrats and the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia lost its majority in public opinion surveys long ago -- and the party's difficulties at the national level certainly didn't help. But the Greens did almost nothing to stop the bleeding. Following the widely publicized incidents on New Year's Eve 2015 in Cologne, which saw widespread sexual assaults committed largely by asylum seekers, the party struggled to come up with a clear position on its refugee and security policies (they still aren't even clear today). The party successfully helped block deportations of Afghan nationals whose asylum applications had been rejected, but it did little to communicate what the rest of its asylum policies might look like.

Furthermore, in a state that has undergone deep structural changes, with the end of coal mining and much heavy industry, the party could have benefited by positioning itself more strongly as an environmentalist party. Instead, the party placed its focus almost entirely on education -- despite the fact that only 4 percent of voters in the state consider the Greens to be truly competent in this policy area. The Greens, to be sure, are not solely to be blamed for education system woes in the state, but voters are unforgiving.

2. Business as usual is no longer an option for the party.

Support for the Greens is waning in many regions. The fact that they are still part of governing coalitions in 10 German states makes the party look stronger than it is. In reality, the party is failing to make a strong and enduring connection with voters. The Greens are still strong in Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein and perhaps still in Lower Saxony and the city-states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg, but that's about it. The party remains perpetually weak in the eastern states and in Saarland. After serving as the junior partner in a coalition government in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Greens lost a dramatic 10 percent in the last election in 2016.

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If things continue the way they are now, the Greens can bury any hope of a decent outcome in the national election on Sept. 24. In North Rhine-Westphalia, 80 percent of those surveyed said they had no idea what the Greens stand for at the national level. And the party doesn't make it any easier: It wants greater social equity, while at the same time rejecting a wealth tax for the richest. It wants to save the environment and the climate, but without overburdening voters with prohibitions and costs. It presents itself as being part of the left-wing camp that opposes the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, but also tries to position itself as a possible coalition partner for the center-right Christian Democrats. Apart from that, the Greens focus on issues like midwives, patchwork families and beekeeping. Such issues are important to many voters, of course, but they aren't enough to do well in national elections.

3. Radical changes? Not for now.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the party's lead candidate resigned after Sunday's defeat. But no leadership shuffle is to be expected at the national level. Nor is it likely that the male-female duo running as the party's top candidates at the national level will be changed. Özdemir and Göring-Eckardt, after all, were chosen by the party's grassroots. And personnel changes only go so far -- as can be seen by Martin Schulz's short-lived bump in the SPD.

After Sunday's outcome in North Rhine-Westphalia, Özdemir spoke of the need for the party to sharpen its profile and for a new beginning. The party is now considering what that might look like. It's possible the Green Party might place a greater emphasis on two of its political stars -- Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, and Robert Habeck, who is lieutenant governor of Schleswig-Holstein -- and focus more on its door-to-door campaign.

Only a year ago, the party had been dreaming of a double-digit outcome in this year's national election, but now the focus has shifted to disaster prevention. If all goes well, so goes the calculation, the party could perhaps escape the opposition as part of a three-party coalition government at the national level. That is the best-case scenario. After the election in North Rhine-Westphalia, though, it has become much less likely.


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