Letter from Berlin Germany's Green Party Faces Four More Years of Opposition

Not all that long ago, Germany's Green Party seemed the party of the future. These days, though, after four years in a weak opposition, the party seems as far away as ever from returning to power.


Top Green Party politician Jürgen Trittin was at his ranting and raving best this weekend at the beginning of his party's convention ahead of autumn general elections in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition, he blustered, is "unable to meet the global challenges" facing it. The government, he fulminated further, is "leading this country with pure dilettantism."

Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party blasted the Merkel government at his party's convention over the weekend.

Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party blasted the Merkel government at his party's convention over the weekend.

For the Greens, it was almost like the good old days when party luminary Joschka Fischer was constantly in the headlines after tearing apart yet another political opponent with a few well-chosen phrases.

Back then, though, Fischer was a key member of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrat-led government and the party was still ahead of the curve when it came to environmental issues. It was hip, it felt fresh, it looked like a sure bet to figure prominently in Germany's political future.

The four years since, though, have not treated the party kindly. Once Schröder lost his job to Merkel four years ago -- and Fischer bid farewell to politics -- the Greens became part of one of the weakest oppositions that post-war Germany has ever seen. With the shots being called in Berlin by a coalition made up of the country's two largest political parties, the center-left SPD and Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, Green voices quickly disappeared from the headlines. And despite Trittin's feisty weekend appearance and the ensuing coverage, it seems unlikely that new elections will change that fate -- a fate sealed in no small part by the party itself.

Germany's Greens are one of three small parties represented in parliament, the Bundestag. But when it comes to electoral prospects this year, the Greens seem to be holding the short straw. Current polls indicate that the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) still have a shot at being the junior partner in a coalition with Merkel's conservatives. The far-left Left Party, while not likely to be invited into any national coalition, stands to do well in upcoming state elections in Saarland, Saxony and Brandenburg.

But the Green Party, eager to get back into government after its first taste of power from 1998 to 2005, seems to have but slim chances of doing so in this election year.

Ironically, the party has lately seemed something of a victim of its own success. In its early years, after growing out of the 1968 protest generation, the Greens were all alone in their ever-louder calls for environmental responsibility. Even as recently as five years ago, the Greens were seen as the hands-down leaders when it came to pushing environmentally friendly policy.

Under Chancellor Merkel, though, Germany has sought to become a worldwide leader in the battle against global warming. She has helped push through ambitious emissions reduction targets for the European Union and continued policies that have transformed Germany into a worldwide leader in environmental technology. Even as some of Merkel's green glow began to fade last year after she backed away from strict car exhaust regulations, the Green Party has been in the uncomfortable position of watching others get credit for measures they have long been fighting for.

Indeed, at the party convention this weekend, Trittin held up a copy of the economy magazine Wirtschaftswoche -- which he referred to as a "neo-liberal periodical" -- bearing the headline "Emerging Green from the Crisis," a cover story on how investments in environmental technology could help Germany survive the economic downturn. "They copied our platform almost word-for-word," Trittin told the gathered delegates.

This year, the party, in an attempt to come up with an antidote to the hijacking of their green ideas, has backed up its critique of Merkel's government with a platform full of economic policy and proposals. Called the "Green New Deal," the package, presented by Trittin and his fellow lead candidate Renate Künast, calls for €20 billion ($27.4 billion) a year to be invested in climate protection, environmental technology and education. Funding for the package, which will supposedly create a million new jobs, is to come from raising taxes on Germany's top earners.

Even if the voters bite, though, it seems unlikely it would be enough to propel the Greens into Germany's next cabinet. An even larger problem than the party's politics is presented by the fact that its traditional ally, the Social Democrats, have spent the last four years haemorrhaging support, meaning that the Greens would have to do extraordinarily well in the fall elections to replicate its coalition government with the SPD under Schröder.

Furthermore, the party's grass roots have long been to the left of the more sober-minded leadership. Prior to the weekend convention, Trittin and Künast -- along with party heads Cem Özdemir and Claudia Roth -- publicly backed a possible three-party coalition with the SPD and the FDP, calling it the only "realistic alternative." But the outcry from below was deafening, with one unnamed delegate telling the influential weekly Die Zeit that "intelligent people" can't imagine an alliance between the Greens and the "locust party" FDP -- "locust" being leftist German shorthand for greedy capitalists. Trittin and Künast were forced to back down, and the party also said it would not join a three-party government with the FDP and CDU either.

Which leaves the possibility of a coalition with the Left Party and the SPD. That, though, is not likely to happen, given the SPD's wariness of joining forces with the far-left party, parts of which grew out of the party which ruled communist East Germany with an iron fist prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The SPD, to be sure, has flirted with the idea in the past. But the political price for such musings last year was large -- including the fall of then-party leader Kurt Beck. It seems unlikely that the SPD is eager for a reprise of that experience. The Greens too, despite some voices in favor of such an alliance, made it clear that the Left Party is not high on its list of coalition partners.

The result will likely be another four years in opposition for the Greens. And should the vote end up as current polls predict, it will be four more years opposing an overwhelmingly large coalition of the CDU and SPD -- once again as a member of the weakest opposition in modern Germany's history.


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