Success and Contradictions How High Can Germany's Greens Rise?

Support for Germany's Greens has surged to record highs thanks to discontent with Angela Merkel's government. This former motley crew of rebels is now a mainstream party adept at milking its ethical image and its protest roots. Its opportunistic policy U-turns and self-contradictions are going unnoticed.



Lukas Beckmann has fond memories of the birth of the Green party 30 years ago. It was during the 1979 campaign for the European parliamentary elections and he and other founding members, Petra Kelly, Joseph Beuys and Rudi Dutschke, drove from university to university in his rickety old blue Peugeot 504, which guzzled 12 liters of leaded gasoline per 100 kilometers (19 miles per gallon), had no catalytic converter and was as aerodynamic as a brick wall.

"We worked day and night," he recalls. They had just enough money for gas and food. "We had nothing materially but had everything in terms of ideals." Beckman, a quiet, unpretentious man, is wearing a brown cord jacket and sitting in his favorite café in the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art museum in Berlin. He was there at the 1980 congress in Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany, that formally founded the party.

Half a year before that, sitting in the party's first headquarters, a corrugated iron hut in the government district of Bonn, the West German capital, he had followed the European election results on an old television set. The Greens got 3.2 percent. It was a respectable result. "At that point it was clear that we had arrived."

And Beckmann will be there this Friday at the party congress in the southwestern city of Freiburg, a Green bastion, when the Greens will be celebrating a surge in opinion polls to unprecedented levels of over 20 percent. They are well ahead of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the city-state of Berlin and in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where regional elections will be held next year.

Three decades ago, the Greens were a radical minority bent on shaking up German politics. Now they're a firm part of the mainstream. No other party has been pronounced dead so often. "The Greens?" Helmut Schmidt growled when he was SPD chancellor in Bonn at the time of the party's birth. That wasn't a party, he told journalists. "They're just environmental idiots who will have disappeared again soon!"

Multiple Comebacks

Their imminent demise was also predicted in 1990, when they failed to clear the 5 percent threshold to get back into parliament, and in 1998, when their party congress in Magdeburg voted in favor of raising the price of a liter of gasoline to five deutsche marks (€2.56) -- political harakiri in a country of automobile lovers whose economic fortunes depended on the car industry.

Just seven years later, political pundits were once again predicting their death when patriarch Joschka Fischer retired, ill-tempered as usual, following the 2005 election defeat that ousted the Social Democrat-Green government. The party served as the junior partner in a coalition government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD from 1998 to 2005.

But the Greens have bounced back yet again. They are back in government with the Social Democrats in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, following a regional election there this year. They govern together with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the city-state of Hamburg and they're in government with the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the small southwestern state of Saarland.

The cities of Freiburg, Tübingen and Konstanz have Green mayors and the party secured the appointment of a lesbian judge to the Federal Constitutional Court.

In recent months, the Greens have been battling the ruling CDU on nuclear power and on Stuttgart 21, the deeply controversial train station and high-speed rail construction project, in bitter political debates in which the SPD has been relegated to the sidelines. At this point, who can seriously rule out the possibility that the Greens may field a chancellor in the not-too-distant future, with the SPD as junior partner?

The Feel-Good Party

The Greens' attraction isn't explained by their policies. In fact they have surprisingly little to say on a range of important economic issues and many of their social policy proposals are unaffordable. What makes them irresistible to many people is the impression they give of always being on the right side. This is a feel-good party. It gives people a reassuring sense that they will somehow be morally elevated if they vote for it. Green voters hardly ever feel they have to justify their choice -- that is a major advantage in the competition for votes.

The SPD remains tainted by the deep welfare cuts it imposed in 2003 and 2004, and people still think the party isn't really serious about social justice. The CDU, for its part, is still widely regarded as a little dusty and old-fashioned, despite the best efforts by the party's leadership to shake off that reputation. Meanwhile, support for the FDP has slumped amid accusations that it is just pursuing policies that suit the interests of its wealthy clientele.

People who vote for the Greens, by contrast, don't need to explain their choice. Who isn't opposed to climate change? Who isn't in favor of protecting seals? Who doesn't have doubts about the safety of nuclear power? And who doesn't think that men and women should have equal rights?

The Greens have managed to maneuver themselves into the center of society. The Green world of 30 kilometer per hour traffic zones to conserve fuel and reduce noise and emissions and the farming and consumption of sustainable organic produce is part of everyday life now, at least in the well-to-do urban districts where the party recruits its supporters.

Mainstream and Rebellious

Yet the party's leaders have managed to retain their old image as being cheeky, unconventional and a little rebellious. That is why the party has effortlessly tapped into the new wave of grassroots protest that has formed in Germany against radioactive waste transports to the controversial Gorleben interim storage depository, the Stuttgart train project and new flight routes over Berlin that are being created as the city prepares to open its new international airport southeast of the city.

All the other parties are suffering from a general disenchantment with politics -- but the Greens are profiting from it. A vote for Green leaders such as Claudia Roth, Jürgen Trittin and Renate Künast is also a vote against the political establishment to the right and left of them. The fact that much of the leadership is close to retirement age seems to have escaped the public's attention -- one of a number of contradictions that the Greens seem to be able to overcome with ease.

At times it seems as though the natural laws of politics do not apply to this party. Other parties are constantly measured in terms of how their demands match up to reality. If a politician supports a policy that directly contradicts his or her previous position, that is rightly regarded as opportunistic.

But Green voters seem to be applying different standards to their party. When the Green leadership criticizes the German army mission in Afghanistan that the party itself launched nine years ago, that is regarded not as populism but as a return to its roots.

Only the Greens seem to manage to contradict themselves and get away with it. The party's national energy policy calls for the construction of new power lines and switching stations needed to prepare the electricity grid for a future of renewable power.

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