Letter from Berlin: Germany's Greens Divided in the Face of Responsibility

By , and Christian Schwägerl

For the first time in its history, Germany's Green Party is preparing to lead a state government. But far from basking in the glow of success, deep divides between party conservatives and ideological leftists are bubbling to the surface. Is the party ready for major political responsibility?

Photo Gallery: Germany's Green Wave Photos
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When Winfried Kretschmann sets the course, he prefers a gentle approach. In a video message broadcast last weekend to the Green Party's regional conference in Berlin, he delivered his "heartfelt greetings" from his home state of Baden-Württemberg, and told his fellow party members that their mission was clear.

The next stage in the Green victory march had to be Berlin, he said, referring to elections in the city-state approaching in September. The hope is that Renate Künast, currently serving as the party's co-floor leader in national parliament, will be elected as the city's next mayor. "We laid the groundwork, and now it's your turn," Kretschmann said, adding that it was his wish "that Renate and I get some green steam going in the republic."

Kretschmann is the amiable face of Green megalomania. He captured 24.2 percent of the vote for his party in Baden-Württemberg in March, the biggest victory in party history. In a few weeks, once coalition negotiations with the center-left Social Democrats are completed, he expects to become Germany's first-ever Green Party governor. And it is an ascendancy which will have an impact nationwide. Suddenly it's conceivable that what was once a niche movement could become a major political force, not just in Baden-Württemberg but also nationwide. It isn't impossible that the party could even receive enough votes in the 2013 general elections to appoint the next chancellor. Recent opinion polls place the Greens ahead of the Social Democrats nationwide.

The victory in Baden-Württemberg marks a major turning point for the Greens, one that is on par with Joschka Fischer's becoming the first Green Party state minister in 1985. Many wondered at the time if the party had the wherewithal to be a productive part of a state government. Nowadays, people are wondering if the party can lead a government. And whether they can do so responsibly.

Policy for Everyone

The party faces a test. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has raised the party's profile, poll numbers and election results, the Greens have had to prove that they are capable of addressing issues other than renewable energies, women's rights and the phase-out of nuclear energy. After long cultivating their image as a special-interest party, their new challenge is to shape policy for everyone.

Both Social and Christian Democrats have decades of experience in this regard. Instead of party-convention sound bytes, pragmatic decisions are needed, as is the courage to make unpopular decisions and the willingness to support one's leadership, even in critical times. The real question today is whether the Green Party, 31 years after its establishment, has grown up.

In Stuttgart, the party will soon experience the constraints that come with ruling as the strongest party. Resistance is already forming within the Greens. The party's left wing fears that the Greens could turn into a normal, middle-class, centrist party. And the result is a growing dispute over the party's direction, pitting as ever the party's realist wing versus the left wing.

The realists are claiming Kretschmann's success for themselves. They want to grow the Greens into a major party and expand its programs to appeal to as many middle-class voters as possible. They are already dreaming of further successes and do not shy away from considering a possible future coalition with the center-right Christian Democrats. They see the Greens as Germany's new center.

The leftists in the party see all the excitement over Kretschmann more as a risk than an opportunity. They want to prevent the party from sacrificing traditional content to gain even more voters in affluent suburbs.

Planning the Counterattack

They also dream of being a major force, but to the left of center, where they hope to attract voters disenchanted with the SPD and the far-left Left Party. Election results of 20 percent make them nervous. And when it comes to forming coalitions, they staunchly support alliances with the center-left SPD.

This dispute has not been carried out in public so far. But while the realists are still basking in Kretschmann's success, the leftists are already planning the counterattack.

Earlier this month, about 40 left-leaning members of the Green Party met in a plain conference room at the NH Hotel in Berlin's Mitte district. The mood was tense. They had just read a remarkable interview with Kretschmann, the party's new hero, in the conservative Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag, in which he had railed against "these leftist impulses" in his party that "are foreign to the environmental concept." It had been clear to him since the inception of his party, Kretschmann said, "that leftist ideas could not support the Greens." The group meeting at the hotel interpreted this remark as a challenge.

Jürgen Trittin, who shares the position of Green Party floor leader with Renate Künast, began the meeting on the attack. Contrary to what the realists claim, he said, the victory in Baden-Württemberg was the result of a "clear polarization" and the clear Green-SPD alliance. "It certainly was not the result of anyone cozying up to the political right," he analyzed.

After Baden-Württemberg, the Greens should make it clear "sooner rather than later," Trittin said, that the goal for 2013 general elections is a victory for the Green-SPD coalition. A drawn out debate about partnering with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, he said, "hurts us in three ways." It upsets "important segments of our supporters," frees the conservative from their current isolation and pushes potential voters into the arms of the SPD.

Trittin's aggressive speech struck a nerve among his leftist colleagues. They have long feared that the right wing of the party plans to convert the Greens into an environmentally minded version of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).

Strategic Hara-Kiri

Now the Trittin wing wants to go on the offensive publicly, as well. Three young party leftists, Stephan Schilling, Agnes Malczak and Arvid Bell, have written a 19-page document that reads like an election analysis, complete with several charts and tables. In reality, however, it is a polemic against the party's more conservative wing. "The Greens were not a wishy-washy party in Baden-Württemberg, but rather offered a counterpoint to the conservatives on central issues that are polarizing society," the document reads. For the first time, it continues, "we have managed, in an election, to assert our claim to be the leading left-of-center force, not just in turns of content and discourse, but also in quantitative terms."

Many young Greens, in particular, are worried that their party could be drifting into the vague realm of the center. Bundestag member Malczak, 26, warns: "If the Greens try to acquire more voters in the center, they will risk losing even more on the left." Max Löffler, 23, head of the party's youth organization, says: "It's the fact that we do not resemble the conservatives that makes us strong. An alliance with the conservatives would be strategic hara-kiri."

Meanwhile, self-satisfaction prevails among representatives of the realist wing. They see the victory of conservative Green Party politician Kretschmann serves as evidence that while leftist rhetoric may motivate the party base, victories are celebrated in the political center.

"Parties interested in the governorship in a state must have something to offer lots of people," says Tarek Al-Wazir, the Green Party floor leader in the Hessian state parliament. Bundestag member Omid Nouripour says: "The voters have made their decision as to whether we are a radical small party or a larger party with a broad base."

Redefining the Party

Party Chairman Cem Özdemir agrees. "The question of whether the Greens prefer to remain small but pure has been answered," he says. Now Özdemir is also announcing substantial changes. He sees the results in Baden-Württemberg as a chance to redefine the party in broader terms.

The outcome of the dispute within the Green Party will be seen Baden-Württemberg, where Kretschmann will soon be heading the first Green government laboratory. And all of Germany will be paying close attention to see if his Greens quickly become embroiled in ideological battles each time a decision must be made -- and each time he must take an unpopular position.

Shortly after the election, Kretschmann made it clear that he would not make it easy for his Greens. "First the country, then the party," is his motto. His governing style will more likely resemble conservative than leftist traditions.

And it won't be easy. His party is still in conflict with the SPD over the massive development project called Stuttgart 21. The future of energy giant EnBW is also likely to make several hairs turn gray. Kretschmann's party wants to see southwestern Germany derive 10 percent of its electricity from wind energy by 2020. Today the 370 wind turbines in Baden-Württemberg are producing only 0.7 percent of the state's electricity. Many new wind farms would have to be built to meet Green Party goals, which would trigger new citizens' initiatives and protests.

And then there are the non-core issues. A recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research concluded that only 4 percent of citizens who are worried about crime would vote for the Greens. Among those who are more concerned about the economy, the environmental party received 7 percent support. "In other words, supporters of the Greens tend to be unconcerned when it comes to those issues," say the study authors. It is, it would seem, questionable whether the Greens will still have the popular support necessary when issues other than the nuclear phase-out and the energy transition determine the political agenda.

Trittin also recognizes the discrepancy between a narrow platform of issues and a broad claim to leadership. He is seen as the top contender if the Greens were to field their own candidate for the chancellorship in 2013. "Significant numbers of people with conservative values" also voted for the Greens recently, Trittin told the meeting of leftist party members in Berlin. For this reason, he added, the Greens must strengthen their credentials on matters such as the economy, labor, social issues and finance. "Thematic expansion," Trittin concluded, "remains a strategic core objective."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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