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Photo Gallery: The Green Party Goes Prime Time

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Sudden Success Germany's Green Party Faces Serious Growing Pains

Public opinion polls indicate that Germany's Green Party is currently the strongest political force in the country.  With a lack of policy experts, money and even sufficient office space, though, the party isn't quite ready for prime time. Only time will tell if the Greens are up to the challenge. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

As she is wont to do, German Green Party Chairwoman Annalena Baerbock opted for a bit of self-deprecatory directness. Giving the keynote address at a recent gathering of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), she said that it wasn't all that long ago that her party was still expending significant energy on "raising carp and trout in a fishpond." Now though? "The world moves fast," she said.

Her audience laughed and applauded, both encouragingly and full of curiosity. Such self-effacing irony is well-received by those who don't yet quite know how to deal with this up-and-coming political party and with its growing self-confidence.

And the world does, indeed, move quickly. A 38-year-old Green Party chairwoman, roughly as old as her party, closed a BDI event that Chancellor Angela Merkel had opened just a few hours earlier. Surrounded by the industrial chic of old factory walls in eastern Berlin, executives and managers were packed into the tight rows, with men in suits making up the clear majority. It was not exactly the kind of event where Baerbock feels most comfortable.

What was her impression of the event? Baerbock inhales through her teeth and says she finds it odd how much attention was paid to her speech at the event this year. After all, she notes, she spoke at the BDI last year as well. Perhaps, she says, people are just listening a bit more closely now.

You could say so. The perception of the Green Party has changed dramatically. As the party has risen in the polls, more and more people -- from all different walks of life - are paying closer attention. The week before last, support for the party reached 27 percent in the latest public opinion polls, higher even than Merkel's conservatives. It was just the latest high point in a slow-but-steady rise in recent months. Even last fall, a survey found that half of all voters could imagine casting their ballot for the Greens.

The biggest challenge now for the party is that of dealing with its newfound status as Germany's leading political force despite having entered this legislative period as the smallest group in parliament, with just 8.9 percent of the votes in the 2017 general election. As the Greens climb toward 30 percent in the polls, they must deal with a flood of new members despite limited personnel and a lack of space at party headquarters and in its chapter offices around the country. It's not unlike a child after a big growth spurt: All its clothes are suddenly too small.

But there are also policy questions for which the party must now find convincing answers. It is solid when it comes to climate change and the environment, but what about those issues that haven't generally been considered classic Green Party concerns? Things like foreign and defense policy and social questions, for example, along with domestic security.

The Greens have to prepare themselves to potentially be part of government following the next parliamentary elections. That vote is currently scheduled for 2021, but it could come quicker than that. Even the idea of a chancellor from the Green Party is no longer as ridiculous as it seemed just a short time ago -- even if no one in the party is willing to talk openly about it.

Still, isn't it hard to believe how good things are currently going for the party? "Ha," responds Baerbock. It's a recent Tuesday evening and she is sitting in the stuffy party headquarters together with Green Party co-chair Robert Habeck. She slaps the table with her hands and looks over at Habeck, who grins back with the wan smile that has become something of a trademark. "At least you can't say that things are going poorly," she says.

'Excellent Chances'

Nobody, though, is willing to get too carried away. The party is intent on showing humility and would prefer to speak of "excellent chances." They are being careful, almost skeptical in the approach to their current success. After all, if the current survey results were ultimately to be short-lived and illusory, it wouldn't be the first time.

Immediately after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in early 2011, for example, the Green Party candidate Winfried Kretschmann became governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, leading everyone to believe that the Greens were in for an excellent showing in the 2013 general election. But it was not to be and the party won just 8.4 percent of the vote that year.

Still, the mistakes the party made that election season were obvious in hindsight and the run the party has been on in recent months feels different. It seems as though its solid polling results have become more stable.

In the European Parliament elections at the end of May, at least, the Greens didn't just emerge on top among first-time voters. The party nosed out the conservatives all the way into the age group of voters under 60. And with 20.5 percent of the vote, the Greens almost doubled its result relative to the 2014 European elections. For the first time, more unemployed voters cast their ballots for the Greens than for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

In the local elections held the same day in some parts of Germany, the Greens led the way in several cities.

There are several explanations for why the Greens are doing so well at the moment. The most important of those, though, is the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its coalition partners from the SPD have been in power together for 10 of the last 14 years and exhaustion is setting in. As those two parties have started to look older and older, the Greens have been happy to work on their image in the comfort of the opposition. The Greens, for example, are the only party in the German political spectrum with a curated Instagram profile worth mentioning and they used it extensively in the European election campaign.

But there are other reasons for the party's recent success, such as the fact that its primary focus, the environment, has suddenly gone mainstream. And that has meant that it is almost impossible for the Greens to do wrong at the moment. Back in spring 2017, parliamentary group leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt said that Green Party issues were "hot shit in the country." If that comment was slightly premature at the time, it is absolutely the case now.

Last summer's drought, the disastrous recent reports on biodiversity, the attention currently being paid to plastic waste in our oceans and the "Fridays for Future" student demonstrations have all boosted the Green Party's relevance. In a survey ahead of the European elections, 57 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "The Greens defend values that are personally important to me."

Avoiding Schadenfreude

And there is something else that the country likes about the Greens: the party's rather different approach to politics. Just after the recent resignation of SPD party head Andrea Nahles, Habeck and Baerbock sent out a press release in which they underlined their respect for the outgoing party chief and expressed "hope that the SPD can quickly settle its personnel issues and return with renewed focus to the task at hand."

It is a tactic that the two had discussed beforehand, that of avoiding schadenfreude and opting for a conciliatory and constructive approach instead. And it has been successful. Markus Söder of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU, even identified the Greens recently as his party's primary adversary. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) likewise considers the environmental party to be its main opponent.

Still, the party's success isn't just a function of favorable circumstances, but also because the Greens have worked hard to get where they are. When Baerbock, a parliamentarian from the eastern state of Brandenburg, and Habeck, state environment minister from Schleswig-Holstein, took over the reins of the party in January 2018, they introduced fundamental reforms, including combining their staffs into a single leadership team and establishing a policy department at headquarters.

One of the most important cornerstones for current success, however, were the difficult coalition negotiations following 2017 German parliamentary elections. Initially, Merkel sought to assemble a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and in those talks, the Greens clearly demonstrated their willingness to take on significant political responsibility. Ultimately, the negotiations would collapse, but it was the FDP that pulled out, only strengthening the positive image of the Greens.

Furthermore, the two party leaders have managed to do something that no leadership duo before them has been able to do: tamp down intra-party rivalries and ego battles. Habeck says they have profited from an "incredible cohesion" within the party.

They've also been preparing for greater political responsibility over the last year-and-a-half by establishing expertise in a broader array of issues. The Greens have always been known as a party full of experts in their field and nobody doubts their credentials when it comes to the environment and climate protection. They have since added several more areas that may come as a surprise to some -- such as social welfare policy and business.

One year ago, Green parliamentarian Kerstin Andreae established an advisory committee to work more closely with the business community. It holds meetings three times a year, with around 60 business leaders meeting with parliamentarians from the party, including party chair Baerbock. Andreae is quick to note that the Greens have always had an "intense exchange" with the business community, but it had generally been on an issue-by-issue basis. The new council has institutionalized the relationship. When assembling the committee, Andreae spent virtually an entire summer on the phone, ultimately managing to recruit such luminaries as the CEOs of BASF and the pharmaceutical concern Roche.

Cooperating with Industry

When choosing her targets, Andreae considered whether they were the kind of people the Greens could work with, people who didn't think just about the next quarterly earnings call but about the economy as a whole. She says the response was more than she could have hoped for, with only two executives declining to participate. The reason? Berlin was too far away for them. At the first conference one year ago, Andreae opened with the question: What would you do if you were the Greens? What would your economic policy look like? She says the primary focus of the advisory committee is not the climate but on how to make Germany and Europe a more attractive place to do business.

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The most recent gathering of the body took place just a few days ago in a hotel in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin. Afterward, they all went to the party's summer reception where Claudia Roth, a prominent member of the party's left wing, greeted BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller, who introduced himself as "the guy from the evil chemicals industry." Christian Knell from HeidelbergCement, a company that is apparently involved in controversial projects on the West Bank, was also there. Pragmatism seems to have become a dominant feature of the Greens.

Following the example of the economic advisory committee, an additional panel took up its work in mid-May, the so-called union and social welfare committee. It includes Green parliamentarians working with works councils, labor unions, consumer protection groups and environmental organizations. "If we want to remake society both ecologically and from a social welfare perspective, we need strategic partnerships," says Anton Hofreiter, who initiated the committee from his position as Green Party parliamentary group leader. Like the economic committee, the group meets around three times each year.

One of the side-effects of the new committee is the fact that it helps the Greens win over union members, who have for decades been core SPD supporters. It used to be that nobody in the party was particularly thrilled about meeting with union representatives, but these days, Hofreiter is enthusiastic about the "readiness for change" he sees within the milieu. They are, he says, "good partners" for the Greens because they too plan far into the future.

The newfound cooperation between unions and the Greens is exemplified in the person of Ralph Obermauer. The 52-year-old spent many years working in the offices of Green Party parliamentarians, but was hired away in March 2018 by IG Metall, where he is responsible for the union's political strategy.

More than anything, though, Obermauer's job is communication, essentially "translating" between the Greens and IG Metall. Obermauer says that the party recognized that it wouldn't be able to push through its environmental policies if it ignored issues pertaining to labor and social policy. "Climate protection and industry cannot be allowed to work in opposition to each other," he says. The party seems to have realized as much: The Greens' plans for a tax on CO2 emissions, for example, have been offset by a mechanism that would more fairly distribute the burden across society.

Addressing a Lack of Administrative Experience

The Greens have also pledged a reform of the country's welfare system, reversing cuts made back in the early 2000s when the party was the junior coalition partner to Gerhard Schröder, the last SPD chancellor. The concept calls for more state assistance and less burden on individual benefits recipients -- and it is the centerpiece of a new focus on social issues with which the party hopes to broaden its appeal beyond the upper-middle class.

Such moves have already born fruit. In the European Parliament elections, the Greens managed to steal 1.3 million voters from the SPD. There have also been positive internal benefits, with the social welfare reform plan acting as a kind of appeasement to the party's left wing, which had never managed to come to terms with the Schröder-era welfare cuts.

The Greens are also focusing more attention on domestic security policy. For years, domestic policy expert Irene Mihalic has been working to rid the Greens of their image as an anti-police party -- in part out of self-interest, since Mihalic herself is a policewoman-turned-parliamentarian.

She says that law enforcement experts have begun recognizing the Green Party's newfound focus on strengthening the police force and on stricter enforcement of existing law. But, she adds, others still express surprise, saying things like: "But I thought you were against the police!"

The fact that security agencies now take the Greens seriously is also partly because of the Green Police Congress, which was initially founded by long-time Green European Parliamentarian Jan Philipp Albrecht. The congress hasn't actually met since 2017 because Albrecht is now a minister in the state cabinet of Schleswig-Holstein, but the parliamentary group in Berlin intends to relaunch the initiative this year, with an event scheduled for November 22. Mihalic says that such congresses are vital for the party's image among both voters and potential future coalition partners.

The Greens have also amassed expertise in recent years in the fields of tax and financial policy. Indeed, if it weren't for former Green Party parliamentarian Gerhard Schick, the vast tax avoidance scandal known as "Cum Ex" may never have seen the light of day. The banking expert held a seat in the Bundestag on behalf of the Greens until 2017 and began taking a closer look at a system of suspicious financial transactions by which huge amounts of stock were moved back and forth with the primary goal of getting tax refunds from the government on taxes that had never actually been paid. The damage to Germany alone is estimated to be as high as 55 billion euros.

When he first started, many other Green parliamentarians were rather amused by Schick's obsession. After all, complicated financial transactions and esoteric tax policy details are hardly the preferred focus of most Green Party lawmakers. Recently, though, the party has developed a reputation for expertise on the issue, particularly with proposals for closing tax loopholes, where they seem to be more creative than their counterparts in other parties.

Extremely Controversial

On foreign and security policy, of course, the party has already had its trial-by-fire, back when it was part of Schröder's government. Not only was Green Party head Joschka Fischer Germany's foreign minister in Schröder's cabinet, but in 1999, the party voted in favor of sending the German military to Kosovo, a move that was extremely controversial among the Greens.

These days, the party has a more pragmatic approach, with Omid Nouripour, the party's foreign policy spokesman in parliament, saying such things as "continuity is necessary for Germany's reliability." Still, though, much of the Greens' foreign policy platform would be difficult to push through in a coalition government -- things like increased foreign aid to crisis-prone countries, a more stringent law governing arms exports, the cancellation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia and a sharper tone with authoritarian countries like Turkey and Russia.

One has the impression, though, that the current support for the Greens has less to do with policy and more to do with a desire for change. "We know that we inspire hope," Habeck said recently, though it was unclear whether he was more happy or fearful, or both. Hope, after all, quickly leads to expectations -- and that is something the party is trying to control. Within the party, it's called "expectation management." After all, having won just below 9 percent of the votes in the last election, the Greens' influence on German politics remains limited -- no matter how well they performed in the European elections or how high they are in current public opinion polls.

Plus, it's unclear whether the party is ready to grow so large so quickly. A quick look at headquarters is enough to understand the problem: A cozy, prewar building in the center of Berlin with five floors and no elevator. The courtyard is full of wild grapes and there is a mini fountain blubbering away next to a small terrace. It is a jarring contrast to the steel-and-glass edifices that house the CDU and SPD headquarters -- and it provides a useful analogy for the Green Party's internal party structures. In the last two years, the party has grown by a third, faster in eastern Germany than in western Germany and it has begun to resemble a teenager who still looks like a child but whose feet are disproportionately large.

If the Greens were in fact to secure 25 percent of the vote in the next German elections, they could ultimately win more seats in parliament than they currently have in the federal and all state parliaments put together.

The party currently has 80,000 members, with the SPD and CDU each having around five times as many. The average age is 49, with those who have recently joined actually lowering that number. Michael Kellner, the Green Party equivalent of a general secretary, is excited about the rapid growth, but he quickly adds: "We are having trouble keeping up." Five people manning the press department and five more doing publicity: That's not a lot for a party that has its eyes on joining the government in two years.

When Kellner took on his current position in 2013, the party was in debt and he had to cut spending, ultimately deciding to get rid of the party's three cars. Now, the new members and the election successes have brought in more money, but Kellner would prefer to invest the money in digitalization instead of cars. The Greens have just one single employee responsible for creating campaign videos and maintaining the campaign app -- and distractions, in the form of a municipal politician calling in with technical problems relating to the app, for example, are frequent.

Diversity Challenges

But as important as digital presence is for political parties these days, especially smaller ones, one of the biggest challenges facing the Greens is a lack of personnel on the state and municipal levels, particularly in administration. In parallel with European Parliament elections, 10 municipal elections were held in Germany, with the Greens likely having won more seats than ever before and positioning themselves to senior positions in many cities, including mayor. But very few party members have the necessary know-how for such administrative work, as sources within the Greens openly admit. The problem could become even greater should it suddenly have to fill posts within the federal ministries after the next elections.

A recent evening in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin serves to illustrate a number of the hurdles the Greens must clear. It is a Tuesday night after the European elections, and over 50 people have shown up to a local chapter meeting to discuss the results, more than twice as many as used to attend such gatherings. Many of them are students in shorts, hardly any are over 30, and most are white -- despite Neukölln being one of the most diverse zip codes in the entire country. During the meeting, they are careful to adhere to the gender quota rule whereby a woman must be given a chance to speak after a man has spoken.

"We are happy that so many of you have shown up," says the woman leading the meeting. And then the results are projected onto the wall. The Greens won 27.4 percent in Neukölln in the European elections, making it the strongest party, and they managed an impressive 40.3 percent in neighboring the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, with the CDU limping in with just 5.7 percent.

"We can't allow ourselves to get swept up in the hype," a campaigner says in the discussion that follows. He reminds the audience that it wasn't all that long ago that the Greens could only expect around 5 percent in elections. Another speaker notes that excellent election results mean high expectations. She says: "The people voted for us because they finally want to see movement" on the climate and on skyrocketing rents, perhaps the most urgent problem facing the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in addition to quickly figuring out how to deal with its rapidly growing size, the party has another issue to address. Philmon Ghirmai, a senior official in the Neukölln chapter, believes it will be crucial for Green Party membership to eventually reflect the society that it aspires to represent. And to do that, it needs many more members with migration backgrounds and must also become attractive to those who didn't attend a university prep high school. "It is vital and urgent that we become more diverse," he says.

Several years ago, the Green Party in Berlin set themselves the ambitious goal of having its membership roles reflect the Berlin population by 2021, which would mean a minority share of 30 percent. Malena Weduwen, a 22-year-old who is part of the leadership in the party's neighborhood youth chapter, says that the party was clearly chosen by voters as a contrast to the right-wing populist AfD. As such, the Greens must reflect that commitment to an open society. Rahul Schwenk, a 44-year-old businessman who only recently joined the Greens, says the party must adjust its platform such that it is attractive to all cultural and social groups and not just to college educated white people.

Just because that's a major concern in Neukölln, however, doesn't mean it's the priority elsewhere. Climate and the environment may be the Green Party's primary focus, but it is actually far from a homogenous party. And the more precise it becomes on policy, the greater those differences become.

A Test Case

In Bremen, for example, the party tends to be further to the left and is currently in the process of negotiating a possible alliance with the SPD and the far-left Left Party, a coalition that would be a first in western Germany. In Baden-Württemberg, meanwhile, the situation is completely different, with Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens having been the party's first state governor there since 2011 -- in coalition government with the center-right CDU.

When the party agreed to that coalition, it was widely seen as something of a test case for a larger Green-CDU coalition at the national level. And Kretschmann's office proudly points to the extra 90 million euros spent on environmental protection measures, the expansion of organic farming and the building of 303 kilometers of new bicycle paths.

That, though, is only part of the truth. Since Kretschmann's reelection in 2016, the two coalition partners in the state -- one whose economy is heavily reliant on automobile manufacturing -- have been constantly bickering. And Kretschmann has been accused lately of abandoning one Green Party position after the next. Indeed, on the issue of pollution-related bans on diesel vehicles in the cities, Kretschmann even managed to infuriate the state's Environment Ministry, which is run by one of his party colleagues.

Kretschmann, 71, also managed to anger Greens far beyond the borders of his state in November 2018 when he demanded -- following a horrific gang rape in Freiburg - that "hordes of young (refugee) men" be sent "to the boondocks." He also branded a proposal from party leader Habeck that some rental properties be nationalized as a way of controlling rents as "nonsense."

One could see such conflicts as the natural friction between a federal party in the opposition and a state chapter that controls the government. Or as a generational difference. Or even as two poles that cannot be reconciled.

But Baden-Württemberg isn't the only state where the Greens are in government. In the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Robert Habeck is from, the Greens serve in a coalition together with the CDU and the FDP, and headline-grabbing friction has been rare. Indeed, the Greens were even rewarded in the European elections with 29.1 percent of the vote in the state, ahead of even the CDU.

Looking ahead to city elections in the state capital of Kiel in October, though, the Greens are less than sanguine. Not because of their popularity, but because of their personnel. Despite launching a search for a viable mayoral candidate, the local Green Party didn't find one. As such, they are asking voters this fall to support the candidate from the SPD.

By Felix Bohr, Annette Bruhns, Vera Deleja-Hotko, Hubert Gude, Julia Amalia Heyer, Martin Knobbe, Tim Kummert, Christoph Schult, Gerald Traufetter and Andreas Wassermann

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