Growing Pains Are Germany's Greens Ready for More Power?
Germany's Green Party is growing in size and influence. But with power comes responsibility and a party convention this week will go a long way in determining whether the erstwhile protest party is ready. There are signs that it may not be. By SPIEGEL Staff
The scene couldn't have been more gratifying for Jürgen Trittin. The German ambassador to Japan was giving a dinner party at his residence in Tokyo, and Trittin, Green Party floor leader in the German parliament, was the guest of honor. Over a main course of marinated bonito and beef tenderloin, one could have been forgiven for believing that a global green renaissance was just around the corner -- or perhaps that Japan was about to embark on a German-style energy revolution.
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, one of Prime Minister Naoto Kan's advisors on the Fukushima crisis, told the German guest that the premier was also a nuclear skeptic. For everyone at the table, he said, the Germans and their energy policy are the benchmark, and Trittin's Greens are the driving force behind it. "The Greens are the ones who brought about the nuclear phase-out in Germany," said anti-nuclear activist Shingo Fukuyama. "It is an enviable development."
Trittin played the role of the savior during his trip through Japan last week. But before the German Greens begin to play an outsized role on the world stage, they must first figure out what future role they intend to play in their own country. One option would be to transform themselves into a modern mainstream party, electable by a brought swath of middle-class voters. Such a strategy would imply a claim to power that extends to the Chancellery as well as a need for constructive policies. The other option? Remaining an opposition party, in conflict with the mainstream and happy to be a junior partner in future coalition governments.
The opportunity is certainly there for the first option. The dominant position of Germany's two major parties, the center-right conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is crumbling, and the dual power structure is dissipating. There is room for a third force. Concurrently, the mood in the country has shifted in favor of the Greens. Nuclear skepticism, the desire for a sustainable lifestyle and enlightened pacifism have all become widespread. The Greens could take advantage, if they wanted to.
More Radical Changes
Size, though, is not without risk and the Greens are currently facing something of a stress test. Do they have the structures, the party platform and people needed to become a major party? An initial answer to this question will emerge next Saturday, at a special party convention in Berlin. The meeting provides party members the opportunity to support Chancellor Angela Merkel's nuclear phase-out plan, as the Green leadership desires, or to insist on more radical changes.
"If the plan is rejected, we will be damaging our ability to secure a majority, and we will be disqualifying ourselves on the road to becoming a leading political force in Germany," says Winfried Kretschmann, the Green governor of the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. "It isn't enough to prevent adverse developments from taking place. You also have to be willing to lead if you want to shape a country."
It is ironic that the nuclear phase out, long a core demand of the Green party, has threatened to become a stumbling block to further growth now that it has arrived. Many in the party's grassroots had been hoping that Merkel's government would phase out nuclear energy much more quickly than the decade-plus currently called for and several other details are not to their liking. Some Green parliamentarians have said they intend to vote against the plan.
But the party's national leadership has done all it can to avoid such a spectacle. For one, Trittin and other leaders are sensitive to critique that the Greens are better at opposing policy than creating it themselves. For another, the incongruity of the Greens voting against a nuclear phase out, no matter what form it takes, could prove difficult to explain to mainstream voters.
A Pragmatic Approach
Trittin even set aside time in Japan to work on the main resolution for this weekend's party convention, expressing Green support for Merkel's phase-out plan, despite reservations. The document is careful to note that key energy experts from the party's left wing assisted in the drafting of the resolution. Green Party leadership plans to drum up support for the resolution throughout this week.
But the left wing -- even as two of its leading figures, Trittin and party co-Chair Claudia Roth, have opted for a more pragmatic approach -- is not backing down. Stricter safety requirements for those reactors remaining online, a construction freeze at the proposed permanent nuclear waste repository near Gorleben in northern Germany, and a more rapid shutdown of the country's remaining nuclear power plants should be set as the three fundamental conditions for Green Party approval of Merkel's plan, says Sven-Christian Kindler, a parliamentarian from Lower Saxony.
Gesine Agena, co-spokeswoman of the Green Party's youth organization and one of the leaders of the left wing, strongly questions the logic behind the party leadership's negotiating strategy. "Why should we agree to a (Merkel administration) compromise if no one ever really negotiated it with us?" she asks. The Greens, says Agena, should not "simply abandon our own demands relating to a core party issue in the rush to demonstrate obedience."
The left wing's concerns are not without substance. For weeks, Green Party leadership demanded negotiations with the chancellor as a precondition for their support. Now it wants to acquiesce, even though Trittin got nothing more than a photo opportunity with Merkel in the Bundestag.
Heading for the Middle
It is unclear how the members will vote at the convention. The grassroots have a reputation for insubordination. And yet, the Green Party is currently undergoing a significant change. The party's new strength is evident in opinion polls, and its membership is also growing -- by 10 percent last year alone. The party currently has 57,000 members, an all-time high.
Konstantin von Notz, domestic policy spokesman for the party in the Bundestag, has been a parliamentarian since 2009. His district is in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Von Notz makes a decidedly middle-class impression, with his tweed jackets and doctorate in Protestant church law. He says he has noticed a new pragmatism among new party members in his district.
"These are committed people who want to get things done politically, but are no longer tied to the old ideologies," says von Notz. "The new members will not leave the party if the Greens agree to (Merkel's) nuclear compromise. It's important to them that we take advantage of this historic opportunity and achieve an important goal."
The new blood is coming from the center of society, where people want more than niche policies and obstructionism. "The new Green voters are characterized by mobility, and they are more accepting of compromises and factual constraints," says Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at the University of Mannheim. These new voters, in particular, "don't want pure opposition. The desire for a role in government is growing stronger and stronger."
- Part 1: Are Germany's Greens Ready for More Power?
- Part 2: A New Approach to Power