Katrin Göring-Eckardt bends down to take a closer look at the miniature landscape. She's a tad perplexed. "What's a goose doing on a balcony?" she asks. She points at the tiny figurine. "Why a goose?"
It's late August, and the Green Party's top candidate in the upcoming general election is visiting the miniature railway museum in Hamburg. The museum has given the country's six largest political parties a small plot of "land" to show off their visions of a future Germany. The Greens' pint-sized paradise features workers converting tanks into tractors, children playing in brightly colored kindergartens and happy chickens making good their escape from a battery farm.
Göring-Eckardt takes it all in, nodding attentively as she's shown around -- until she spies the goose, on the fourth floor of an apartment block overlooking a busy street. For a party that takes the human treatment of animals as seriously as the Greens do, this is a total no-no. Discussion ensues. Eventually, Göring-Eckardt and the model-builders agree the goose is a symbol of a "self-determined life." But she's not really placated. A goose on a balcony? It's positively anarchic.
The woman often referred to as "KGE" was nominated by her party in a direct vote last November as the female half of the party's dual male-female candiate for chancellor in the federal election. At the time, she seemed to perfectly complement Jürgen Trittin, the left-leaning party veteran sharing her ticket. Flamboyant party head Claudia Roth tailed behind in fourth place, in what was seen as a rejection of the alternative and confrontational agenda of the Greens' founding generation and a move towards a more mainstream version of the party. While Trittin was nominated to appeal to the Greens' core voters, the idea was that Göring-Eckardt would speak to the postmodern middle class.
If that was the plan, it appears to have failed spectacularly. When they were nominated, the Green Party was polling around 14 percent. Now, it's down to 11 percent. According to the Forsa Institute, its support has plummeted to below 10 percent, behind the Left Party.
Revelations on Monday about Trittin's involvement in the Green Party's historical pedophilia scandal have further muddied the party's prospects. In an essay for the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung newspaper, Franz Walter, a political scientist hired by the Greens in May to investigate the party's affiliations with pedophiles in the 1980s, wrote that Trittin was jointly responsible for an election platform that included a call for the decriminalization of sex between minors and adults. It is important to note that Trittin himself has never been accused of such a crime, but having his name on the paper is a political scandal nonetheless.
Trittin on Monday confirmed the findings to Die Tageszeitung. "It was simply taken for granted that we adopted one-to-one the demands of various fringe initiatives, such as those of the 'Homosexual Action Göttingen,'" said Trittin, who was a student running for city council at the time. "The responsibility was mine and it's a mistake I regret."
Since the findings were published, several conservative politicians have called for the Green Party forerunner to withdraw his candidacy. "Trittin needs to consider whether he really is the right man to be fronting the Greens," said Philipp Missfelder of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). His actions are "a mockery to all victims of sexual abuse," said Family Minister Kristina Schröder of the CDU on Tuesday.
'A Terrible Mistake 30 Years Ago'
Göring-Eckardt came to Trittin's defense in a letter to a prominent female official with Merkel's conservatives made available to SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday. "As one mother being addressed by another, but also as the party's leading candidate, I can tell you that the Greens made a terrible mistake 30 years ago. But I also want to state just as clearly, stop trying to make an election issue out of this for once and for all!"
"Addressing the Green Party's history is an issue that is close to the heart of the party and me personally," she added. "And Jürgen Tritten himself was one of the people who pushed for investigating this chapter of the founding phase of the Green Party through independent researchers. He has also accepted responsibility for his own errors."
Until now, the Green Party has largely kept its cool about its recent precipitous decline, with no public discussion of mistakes and no one as yet pointing any finger of blame. Once the election is over, the party will have time enough to explore the reasons for its poor showing, from the pedophilia scandal to its controversial plans to raise taxes on the rich and ill-advised calls for a 'veggie day' -- and, indeed, its two top candidates.
When the party conducted a survey ahead of the election campaign to find out what their supporters expected from the party leadership, it established that voters wanted Green politicians to be competent and resolute. And defiant.
But that's where Trittin and Göring-Eckardt both fall short. The edginess and antagonism that was once as much a part of the Greens' identity as environmental protection and nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. Along with their outsider, anarchic character.
A one-time street fighter, Trittin made friends on the executive floors of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, learning from their expertise and reading the most important literature in an effort to make himself a viable future candidate for finance minister. He also learned how to play the role of the statesmen when he needed to. Göring-Eckardt became the friendly face by his side. The election campaign image of her, shot by Merkel's photographer of choice, Laurence Chaperon, makes her look as nice and naïve as Annika, Pippi Longstocking's goody two-shoes friend.
But ever since her nomination triumph, she seems to have felt that this is how the party likes her: gentle, quiet, conciliatory. Her role is to show that voting Green doesn't have to hurt; that Greens don't need to suffer and rebel; that they can also drive SUVs -- in short, that it's possible to reconcile voting for the Greens with being conventional.
Change of Heart
When Angela Merkel's East German past hit the headlines in the spring, Göring-Eckardt took the opportunity to come clean about her own former position as propaganda secretary in the FDJ, something of Boy and Girl Scouts for the Communist Party. She did so almost casually -- in the conversational tone she so often adopts. As if to say, it's all fine, there's nothing to worry about, it won't hurt. She made no mention of the pressure to conform that defines life in a dictatorship; how it feels to wear the uniform of an organization you don't feel you belong to, or what it's like to live a lie and grow up in the knowledge that you can't say what you really think.
Given that her career took a nosedive once the coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens came to end, her nomination as lead candidate is Göring-Eckardt's big chance. Ten years ago, her enthusiasm as parliamentary leader of the Greens in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, for the coalition's Agenda 2010 series of painful social reforms (that, among other things, massively cut welfare payments to the long-term unemployed) didn't go down too well within her party. Describing the Greens as an "engine of reform" and gushing about "a revolutionary transitional period," her apparent zeal raised a few eyebrows.
These days, she brings the same zeal to promoting left-leaning social policies, painting her change of heart as a learning curve. Learning is always good, after all. Coming to a realization might be painful, but learning doesn't hurt. She acts as though this transformation is merely a matter of detail -- a few measures that might have been a bit over-the-top or which didn't quite work out. But in fact, what was at stake was deeply significant, raising questions about whether the neo-liberal reforms were justified or inhuman, and whether or not social security should be tied to the state of the economy.
An Impossible Challenge
When her career was at a low ebb, Göring-Eckardt held representative positions that didn't require debate. She served as vice president in the Bundestag, the head of Germany's Lutheran synod and president of the Kirchentag Protestant festival. Then came her change of heart. She morphed into some kind of Mother Teresa. She doesn't much care for this label, but now and then she uses it herself because it boosts her credibility. Her involvement with the church explains both her transformation and the fact that her arguments these days are not just practical but also ethical.
Her nomination as lead candidate was predicated on this change of heart. As a supporter of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Agenda 2010 reforms, she wasn't allowed to climb the party ranks. As a leftist champion of social policies, she may. But this confronts her with an almost impossible challenge -- she has to plug those policies while continuing to appeal to middle-class voters. This she attempts to pull off by resorting to the preachy terminology of the church.
She remains calm, never aggressive, sugarcoating her message to make it as painless as possible. When it comes to tax hikes, this is easier said than done. But Göring-Eckardt manages it. The way she sees it, those who will be hardest-hit financially will be compensated with ethical brownie points.
When she talks of redistribution, it sounds compassionate. She takes her cues from the Church, referring not to the rich but to "those who have so much that they can afford to help others." Those strong enough to shoulder a burden. "I assume you are not among them," she tells her audience, just to be on the safe side. "But is it really too much to ask that this 10 percent contributes to the common good?"
Then there was Veggie Day. In early August, two days after the mass-circulation Bild newspaper reported that the Greens wanted to stop Germans from eating meat once a week, Göring-Eckardt was campaigning on the North Sea island of Nordeney. She alluded to the issue, talking about the monstrousness of factory farming and pigs whose tails are cut off. But she avoided explicit mention of Veggie Day. The audience was left wondering if she supports the introduction of a meat-free day in canteens across the country or not. But such indecisiveness is deliberate. She doesn't want to offend anyone and so avoids terms that might be alienating. In this particular context, they include "ban" and "compulsory."
Weeks later, she discussed the same issue in Berlin and gave a lengthy speech about the relationship between freedom and rules, the general gist of which was that the point of freedom is being able to set rules. And, as she pointed out, a meat-free day once a week is a time-honored Christian tradition.
In August, the campaign trail took Göring-Eckardt to Aurich in Lower Saxony, where she shared the stage with some fake trees and a local bard performing a German version of "Imagine." In a Q&A session, she was asked what would happen if neither an SPD-Green coalition nor a CDU-FDP coalition were options. "Would the Greens consider an alliance between the Left Party and the SPD?" asked a member of the audience.
Soft-spoken as ever, Göring-Eckardt talked about the gap between the party programs and of the Left Party's lack of reliability. Once she finished, she looked at the man expectantly, waiting him for to sit down. But he didn't, aware he'd been fobbed off. He repeated his question -- and she gave him more or less the same response. "I'm not satisfied with your answer," he said. "Fair enough," she replied. And took the next question.