Last week, Germany's Green Party became the first political party in Berlin to send out its messages out to the capital city over Internet radio, broadcasting around the clock. It seems party officials never run out of things to say.
During the day, Green politicians from the city's many districts and from Berlin's government can have their say through various programs, interviews and reports. At night, the station is devoted to music, in a mix of styles that says a lot about the party's urban constituents. Jazz and country music get airtime, as do classic left-wing German singers such as Hannes Wader and Ernst Busch and protest songs from all different eras. "We do a program around green issues and a green attitude to life," says local politician Frank Dittrich, who oversees the radio project.
These green radio waves are the party's most recent attempt to bridge the gap between different segments of its electorate. On the one hand are the party's long-time constituents, such as granola-eating peaceniks in Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin long known for its counterculture. On the other are more newly arrived Berliners -- social climbers who have spread into up and coming neighborhoods like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, bringing a good deal of money but a bad conscience.
The environmentalist Green Party has something for everyone in both groups. In the alternative neighborhoods of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, old guard leftist Hans-Christian Ströbele -- the only Green politician to be elected with a direct mandate into Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag -- picks up organic milk from the store and rides his bike through his district. In Mitte and the northeastern neighborhood of Pankow, meanwhile, the Greens are trying out novel ballot voting models within the party membership, along with initiatives like the radio project, to show their edge over the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the modern party in tune with big-city life.
This strategy seems to have paid off in the recent elections for the European Parliament. The Greens achieved 23.6 percent of the vote in the city of Berlin, making them the second strongest party after the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). For the SPD, which counts Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit as a member, the election proved a disaster. Michael Cramer, one of the German Green Party's representatives at the European Parliament, is only too happy to list off the SPD's faults. "They are incapable of dealing with the economy," he says, "they don't want to be environmental and they have given up on the social safety net and equality."
Berlin isn't the only city where the Greens were able to overtake the SPD in the European elections. The party also established itself as the second-strongest political force in Cologne, Bonn, Frankfurt, Würzburg, Ulm and Munich. And in university towns such as Darmstadt, Heidelberg and Freiburg, the Green Party even came in first place. Municipal elections in the southern city of Stuttgart, which took place at the same time as the European election, also saw the Greens emerge with the highest vote percentage. "We're the party of the new middle class," exults Renate Künast, the Greens' leading candidate for the Bundestag election this September.
The Green Party's success -- the party reached an all-time high of 12.1 percent throughout Germany -- can't be explained through the attractiveness of its leading candidates in the European election. Even allies perceive former party leader Reinhard Bütikofer to be a a gray-faced man who pulls the strings backstage but suffers from an accute charisma deficit.
The Green Party's multiple leaders in Berlin have also seemed more concerned with themselves in recent weeks than with a well-run election campaign. First the five leading Greens agonized their way through a debate over whether to include a statement about what political coalitions they would consider after the federal elections on Sept. 27. (Speculation had been brewing over whether they would express a willingness to join a government with the conservative CDU and the business-friendly liberal Free Democratic Party, the FDP. In the end, though, they voted not to say anything about any potential coalition in their party platforms.) Then the party shot down a plan to form a campaign slate that, in addition to leading candidates Renate Künast and Jürgen Trittin (who lead the Greens in parliament), would also include other well-known party veterans. The plan had been lampooned internally for being tangled and involving too many candidates.
What, then, has been the source of the Greens' success in so many big cities? For one thing, the party has profited like no other from the SPD's decline. Pollsters estimate that 650,000 voters have shifted from the SPD to the Green camp compared to the 2005 election. At the same time, the extremely low voter turnout in the European elections benefited the Greens. Many SPD voters stayed home, while Green Party supporters -- who are primarily drawn from Germany's highly educated and wealthier classes -- were more easily mobilized on election day.
"There's Not so Much Money Left"
More than anything else, though, the SPD seems to have lost hold on the ominous "new center," the class of up-and-coming high achievers who carried Gerhard Schröder into the Chancellery in 1998. The Greens have now become a party for high earners, for academics, civil servants and employees -- groups who are watching distrustfully as the SPD seems intent on throwing expensive life preservers to ailing companies in the face of the economic downturn as quickly as possible.
"There's not so much money left, so it needs to be spent intelligently," says Katharina Blumenstock, a gynecologist in Cologne. "The development of electric cars is more important to me than the Opel bailout. We need to invest in the future." She says she trust the Greens most to find the right path out of the current financial and economic crisis.
Blumenstock moved to Ehrenfeld, an erstwhile working class neighborhood of Cologne, with her husband Andrzej, a dentist, 20 years ago. Many of their neighbors are the second generation in their families to live there, in a street lined with Wilhelminian-era homes. Parking spaces are now in short supply, with large cars hogging space.
The Blumenstocks are successfully self-employed, people who might seem more likely to support the pro-business FDP. But the very suggestion strikes Katharina Blumenstock as unacceptable: "As a leftist you can really only vote for the Greens."
Her husband debates each election whether he should even bother voting at all -- in the end, though, he supports the Green Party. "It's more of a last-ditch vote," he says, adding that he doesn't fully see eye to eye with any party. He can't bring himself to vote for "the Left Party with its reformed old Stalinists." And as for the SPD, he says it simply isn't needed anymore.
The couple likes to sit in Cafe Franck, with its 1970s decor and slices of cake are as huge as if they'd really been baked by someone's grandma. "The green milieu has become predominantly a comfortable one," says political researcher Franz Walter of Göttingen University.
True to the Party no Matter What
In Ehrenfeld, the Green Party took almost 40 percent of the vote in the European election earlier this month, more than the CDU and SPD put together. One in four residents in the district has foreign roots. Yet even people like Mehmet Somsum now support the Greens. Somsum, 63, immigrated to Germany from Turkey's Anatolia region in 1972. Now he stands inside the corner store he operates among the fastidiously stacked cigarettes and sweets, and compares Cem Özdemir, new co-leader of the Green Party and himself of Turkish background, with former chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt -- two politicians, both SPD members, Somsum admired in his first years in Germany.
Somsum doesn't have anything good to say about their successors. "They ruined Germany," he says. "When I came to Germany, you were No. 1 in the entire world. And today?" Sosum says three of his children voted for the Greens in the European election. "Cem is a good man, an honest politician," he raves, although the politician in question suffered a sensitive career setback in 2002 due to a scandal over the misuse of frequent flyer miles, and had to step down from his seat in parliament.
The Anatolian shopkeeper, with his indulgence toward his much-admired Özdemir, could stand in as a prototype for many Green Party supporters -- true to the party no matter what happens, and able to interpret even the fiercest internal party disputes as an expression of a lively debate culture. For many people, a vote for the Greens is also an expression of a certain attitude toward life. It's an opportunity to enjoy the comforting feeling of doing something for other people and for the environment in the voting booth -- and then to drive home afterward in a spacious Swedish station wagon that guzzles gas in the city traffic.
The Green milieu has its deepest roots in the university towns of Germany's prosperous south. The Green Party has long been the strongest political power in Tübingen in southern Germany, for example. Typical Greens supporters such as single people, students and dedicated environmental activists have been joined by families who are conscientious about their consumption patterns -- or so believes the city's mayor, Boris Palmer, himself a member of the Green Party. "These are educated, middle-class people," he says, "who drink cappuccino, but make sure it's made from fair trade coffee."
The good showing in the European election has helped the Green Party gain momentum all over Germany. Palmer isn't ruling out the possibility that he could run for mayor in Stuttgart, a much larger city than Tübingen, a second time. The first time he attempted in 2004, the young politician garnered 21.5 percent in the first round of voting.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the Greens are discussing with necessary secrecy whether they should run their own candidate against the SPD incumbent, Klaus Wowereit, in the capital's 2011 election. In Cologne, former Health Minister Andrea Fischer of the Greens upset local officials by promoting support for the CDU candidate in the city's August mayoral race.
The Green Party leadership in Berlin wants to continue putting pressure on the SPD in an attempt to win over voters far outside the eco-minded microcosms of the big cities. Successfully pursuing this strategy, however, would present the Greens with a new dilemma -- the same SPD counterparts they're working to unseat are also the only coalition partners many Greens would be willing to consider after the federal election this fall.
MARKUS DEGGERICH, SIMONE KAISER, RENÉ PFISTER, BARBARA SCHMID