Berlin: When it was founded in 1980, the Green party in Germany was a direct by-product of the counterculture and social movements that had gripped the European continent in the two preceding decades. The Greens marched for women’s rights and gay rights; the end of nuclear power and, of course, environmental protection.
The aim for the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen – as the party is formally called – was never to be a part of mainstream politics. They wanted to be a presence in the Bundestag (German parliament) as a progressive, anti-establishment party representative of the young generation.
But the 80s happened to be a time dominated by a clamour to protect the environment. Alarm bells started ringing from all quarters – acid rain in Germany caused forests to die, toxic chemicals flowing from an industrial complex in Switzerland flowed into the Rhine, causing fish to die. Outside Germany, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster struck. The stage was set for the Greens to make their mark in a definitive way.
From the sidelines of the parliament, the Greens were catapulted to the centre stage. Mainstream political parties began to adopt the Green language, focusing not only on ecology and sustainable living but also on other social topics such as feminism, grassroots democracy and so on. The Greens emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in 2000 when it formed a coalition, for the first time, with the Social Democrats. More recently, in the aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011, the party polled nationally at 20%
And yet, today, the party is struggling to stay relevant. With the federal elections three months away, the Greens have slipped to an all-time low in 15 years, polling between 6-8%. During the elections, the party is likely to fall below 5%, making it difficult to enter the German parliament.
Why are the Greens wilting?
The perception is that the Greens have failed at realpolitik and lack a clear vision on the most pertinent issues – taxes, security, threat against terrorism, data protection and so on.
But the real answer, say experts, lies in the refugee crisis, the ensuing rise in populism and the Zeitgeist surrounding it. So even as gas emissions are on the rise, global warming requires urgent attention, climate change and environmental concerns remain hot-button issues, they are no longer topics that generate excitement. There has been a significant shift in voters’ minds now focused on immigration and integration. Over refugees, the Green approach has been all-embracing, and that is beginning to hurt them.
Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, who has been covering the Green party since 2010, said: “The Greens fare well only in good weather. But when there are socio-economic challenges, voters don’t have faith. Although Germans have been largely welcoming of the refugees, they are beginning to feel that they need a party that can balance openness and border control all at once, and the Greens don’t inspire confidence in that regard,” she said.
Christian Kühn, a Green party member of parliament, acknowledges the disconnect. “Our stance over refugees is clear: refugees are welcome in Germany and no upper limit needs to be fixed on the number we take. However, the refugee situation is a not only a German problem but a world problem. A transnational policy is needed,” he told The Wire.
While this brand of openness does strike a chord with progressive voters, another entity with a similar outlook has now entered people’s imagination. Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is already ahead of the curve in displaying the much-touted wilkommenskultur or welcoming culture towards refugees. “The Greens cannot attack Merkel because it will backfire,” said Arne Jungjohan, energy analyst and political scientist.
On a purely political level, said Jungjohan, it is the Greens’ success at the state level that is backfiring nationally. Currently, the Greens enjoy a spot in ten of the 16 state ruling alliances. In the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, there is even a Green governor. “The Greens form coalitions with Right and Left parties. It allows them to implement their agenda in any coalition constellation. So while on one hand, they demonstrate flexibility, on the other this diversity blurs the party’s overall profile. Most voters are usually Left or Right oriented,” said Jungjohan.
For instance, there is a Green mayor in the state’s capital city of Stuttgart, where the Greens are in coalition with the liberal Social Democrats. In nearby Freiburg, on the other hand, the Greens have formed a coalition with the conservative CDU.
The other thing dragging the party down is its own cause célèbre – climate change. The Greens are no longer the only party making the environment a talking point. None of the major political parties is ignoring the elephant in the room; instead, all of them are lapping it up in manifestos and campaign speeches.
With their forte being iterated across party lines, what then remains of their campaign for the upcoming election?
At their pre-election conference earlier this month, the Greens made same-sex marriage a coalition condition. On Friday, the lower house of the parliament legalised same-sex marriage in a snap vote.
“We will continue our fight against global warming. Green issues will remain at the forefront of our campaign strategy because we know they are important for us and for future generations. We will keep our focus on climate protection, renewable energies, green eco-farming and a strong and unified Europe,” said Kühn.
Voters also report being fed up with a constant moralistic reproach in Green governance where larger issues are often missing. For instance, they had in the past proposed a veggie day in which canteens would be obliged to serve only vegetarian food once a week. Jacob Manteuffel, 25, a disgruntled Green voter agreed but said they were the best bet in the current scenario. “Most of the global issues we face right now are linked to environmental problems. If we want stability and peace, we have to protect the environment. Social problems are equally important. The Green party is really the only party that handles these two well together,” he said, reiterating the oft-cited problem: Merkel is seen to be concerned about the environment at the international level; but nationally, her efforts are wanting.
Perhaps, all is not yet lost for the Green party. In a recent state election held at Schleswig-Holstein, a new alliance has been formed between the conservative CDU, the business-friendly liberals Free Democrats and the Greens. This alliance is being dubbed as the “Jamaica coalition” because the three parties’ colours are black, yellow and green respectively. “This is the kind of coalition that could be scripted in September. We cannot write off the Greens just yet,” said Jungjohan.
Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer. She tweets @ASuitableGirl.