In 1983, long-haired MPs wearing knitted sweaters and carrying flowers entered Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. These obscure and humble beginnings of the Greens as an anti-establishment party are long gone from the German political scene. From 1998 to 2005, the party formed a governing coalition with Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) on a national level. Since then, the Greens have also carried responsibility in numerous state governments.
The Green Party hasn’t been part of a national government for 16 years now, but it is eager to pick up the reins again. Increased public approval is fueling its craving for power. For about two years now, the Greens’ poll numbers have been hovering around the 20% mark. Compared to the party’s best federal election result yet, 10,7% in 2009, approval has almost doubled. At the pinnacle, in June 2019, some polling agencies projected 27% support for the Greens, pushing the party to the top spot, 3% ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU).
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With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, these approval ratings dipped temporarily as the ruling parties attracted most public attention while applying rigorous measures to combat the virus. Nonetheless, during the last couple of months, the Greens have recovered. The party is a force to be reckoned with during the upcoming September general election. What has prompted these skyrocketing poll numbers?
In January 2018, two fresh faces entered the national political arena. Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck became joint party leaders for the Greens and have since become rising stars.
Robert Habeck holds a doctorate in philosophy and is the former deputy head of state and environment minister for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. With his trademark hairdo, three-day stubble and casual clothing, Habeck knows how to stage a good photo opportunity. One of the images that has gone viral on social media is of him ironing his shirt on the wooden floor shortly before attending a party conference. Despite facing ridicule by many, Habeck is apt at setting himself apart from politicians regarded as old school and out of step with young voters.
Annalena Baerbock, who is a member of the Bundestag, is also no stranger to self-promotion. Her lively personality and vigor contribute to the Greens’ modern public image. However, she distinguishes herself from Habeck by more in-depth policy knowledge. While the more charismatic Habeck tends to indulge in outlining the philosophical and ideological framework of Green politics, Baerbock likes to delve into the policy nitty-gritty, like Germany’s coal phase-out. This makes her a more popular figure within the party, while Habeck enjoys higher approval ratings among voters.
It would be superficial to reduce the Greens’ soaring approval ratings to their party leaders’ public image. Both Baerbock and Habeck have pressed ahead with establishing the party as a socioecological alternative for centrist voters, veering away from a common perception that it could not reach beyond its traditional following. This mainly included educated, middle-aged voters with high incomes living in metropolitan environments.
In an interview, Robert Habeck stated the party’s intent to detach itself from this misconception: “Our goal is not only to be a milieu party. We are now starting a new phase.” The Greens have benefited from climate protection, gradually receiving more public attention due to external events and activism by various groups, like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Fridays for Future climate movement. With awareness of the issue of global warming increasing, the Greens are succeeding in reaching out to the “middle of society.”
A Green Chancellor?
As their traditional coalition partner, the SPD, is losing popularity, the Greens have been bustling to find new, more conservative political allies. After the 2017 general election, the Greens negotiated with the center-right CDU/CSU and the Liberal Democrats (FDP) to form a government. That was the continuation of the party’s strategic opening to all ends of the political spectrum, as the Greens had already formed coalitions with both parties in several state governments. In 2011, the party had already reached a significant milestone: Winfried Kretschmann won the state election of Baden-Wuerttemberg by appealing to conservative voters and became the first Green minister president, with the mighty CDU/CSU as their junior coalition partner.
But the strategy of electability and reaching out to centrist voters does not come without its repercussions. Luisa Neubauer, the spokeswoman for Fridays for Future, a movement popularized by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, has criticized the Greens for abandoning their ecological core values and for delaying the steps required to combat climate change. Going head to head with the Greens, she asked: “If even the Greens can’t come up with a policy that has the capacity to take on the climate crisis — where else can you start?” The movement has also reprimanded the Greens for supporting the construction of a highway through a forest in the federal state of Hesse.
Another accusation the party leadership faces is its failure to commit to the ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.5˚C. Many leading party figures believe Fridays for Future’s radical demands are a hindrance to communicating the cause of climate protection to large parts of the population. Conversely, the movement, which regards itself to be “greener than the Greens,” disdains the party’s soft approach. Nevertheless, the Greens remain imperturbable in their quest to appeal to a broad majority of Germans. Due to consistently high polling numbers, the party intends to select its first-ever candidate for the chancellorship. Thus far, Baerbock and Habeck have resisted media pressure to decide who will challenge the CDU/CSU’s candidate.
To the public eye, this delayed decision makes the Green leadership appear tentative and insecure. Indeed, the party seems unsettled by the consequences of its electoral strategy. Barring the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), all parties in the German Bundestag are courting the Greens. After the election of Armin Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s party leader, an alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Greens as the junior coalition partner remains the most likely path to power. This constellation would facilitate the Greens taking up the federal Ministry of Finance and delivering a budget that sets the course for ecological modernization.
Preferred coalitions with the SPD and Die Linke (The Left) appear unlikely. Yet as voting behavior becomes increasingly volatile, the Greens must take all possible outcomes into account. That includes coalitions with the SPD and The Left, and the responsibility of holding the chancellorship as the larger party.
The Greens are within earshot of historic electoral success. As Svenja Flaßpöhler, the editor-in-chief chief Philosophie Magazin, says: “Actually I would like to see the Greens enter government participation with courage … There is nothing to lose. The worst that can happen is that we are voted out of office again after four years. I miss this attitude a bit at the moment.”
As shown, the odds are pointing toward success. Climate change has entered mainstream politics and is at the tip of most people’s tongues. Poll numbers are soaring, and the party leaders’ personalities reflect the current zeitgeist. The Greens should not shy away from the challenge of government responsibility. Part of this challenge will undoubtedly be the juggling act of maintaining their credibility as an environmental party while serving the electorate as a whole.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.