The strange rebirth of the German Greens

In a divided country, the party has surged into second place with poll ratings of 20 per cent. But its centrist programme would leave the fundamentals of economic and social policy unchanged. 

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In Germany’s increasingly fractured political landscape, the Greens are ascendant. Having once struggled to surpass 10 per cent in national opinion polls, the party is now polling at twice that figure, putting it in second place behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Under the leadership of the tepidly charismatic duo of Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, the re-energised party has vowed to “renew Europe’s promise” and defend democratic society. Forty years after they were founded as a haven for former leftist radicals embracing electoral politics, the Greens appear poised to complete their long transformation into a reliable party of government (they held national office for the first time alongside the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1998-2005).

The Greens pitch themselves both as a trusted, experienced centrist party and an alternative to Germany’s CDU-SPD duopoly. Moderate voters once alternated between the two main parties (who have governed as a grand coalition since 2013). But support for the SPD, discredited by its embrace of austerity and labour market deregulation, is in remorseless decline (its poll rating has fallen from 34 per cent in 2005 to 14 per cent).

The CDU, meanwhile, is torn between a moderate wing embodied by Merkel and a right represented by the defeated leadership candidate Friedrich Merz. For affluent middle-class voters alarmed by the rise of the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and fearful of economic decline (German GDP contracted by 0.2 per cent in the third quarter of 2018), the Greens are ever more appealing.

The party’s surge has nevertheless surprised many, after the Greens finished sixth in the 2017 general election with just 8.9 per cent of the vote. The third-placed AfD and the pro-market Free Democrats, which more than doubled their vote shares, dominated political attention.

Ever since the mid-2000s, German politics has been marked by the rise of insurgent parties: first the socialist Die Linke, then briefly the technophile Pirate Party, and finally the AfD, attracted voters who had been alienated by the political establishment.

This trend initially appeared to fortify the centre by making grand bargains between the centre right and the centre left essential to coalition formation. But with the once hegemonic SPD falling to previously unthinkable lows, this strategy is no longer viable. The Greens, untainted by participation in Merkel’s 14-year chancellorship, have positioned themselves to fill the void by attracting moderates wary of more radical alternatives such as Die Linke and the AfD.

The party has been preparing for this moment for decades, gradually diluting its policy programme through a series of coalition governments with the SPD and, more recently in several states, the CDU. This began in the late 1990s, when the foreign minister and Green Party darling Joschka Fischer authorised German warplanes to participate in the Nato bombing campaign of Yugoslavia.

The party has significantly moderated its environmental programme, accepting long delays in the phasing out of coal energy (now postponed until the 2030s) and reaching an understanding with Germany’s car industry. Although never explicitly anti-capitalist, the Greens long harboured a degree of scepticism towards the free market and, as recently as 2013, were still projecting a left-wing image under the former leader Jürgen Trittin.

Today, by contrast, they can expect at least tolerance if not open support from the business community. Though they may condemn some of the excesses of free-market capitalism for campaigning purposes, the party’s record in power testifies to its willingness to maintain the economic and political status quo in exchange for a seat at the top table.

Many of the Greens’ signature policies, such as the phasing out of nuclear power, have been adopted by the political mainstream. Perhaps the party’s only distinctive social policy is its promise of a universal basic income.

The Greens’ selling point is less their political substance so much as the contrast they provide to the toxic invective of the AfD and the right wing of the CDU. Once a party for cosmopolitan, ecologically conscious protest voters, the Greens are now the party of anyone in Germany who wants to keep things more or less the way they have been for the past 30 years – but with more electric cars.

Unlike the divided SPD and Die Linke, the Greens have united around their leadership and project an image of stability, confidence and clarity. The prospect of doubling their support in this June’s European Parliament elections has muted what little dissent there was from the party’s grass roots.

Should the Greens’ new-found popularity endure, the party will be in a strong position to form a governing coalition in 2021. The seemingly unstoppable decline of the centre left, however, will most likely push the Greens to govern with their traditional cultural adversary, the CDU.

Such a grand bargain would have the potential to realign German electoral politics for years to come. Green participation in government from 1998-2005 was already hailed as the culmination of the 1968 counterculture’s “long march through the institutions”. A government between the Greens and the CDU would been an even more pivotal moment, suggesting that the Sixties counterculture was not nearly as radical as it once styled itself.

However, such a government would offer little to Germany’s working poor, for whom the long economic boom has delivered few concrete gains. Almost one in four workers are paid less than the country’s €9.19 hourly minimum wage.

Any Green government will preserve the fundamentals of economic and social policy. Should Germany fail to address rising inequality, both at home and across Europe, the social divisions driving the country’s political realignment may yet overwhelm the Greens too.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor of Jacobin and co-editor, with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018).

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail