The Greens, Germany’s other party on the rise

While Germany's mainstream political parties are floundering in the face of a right-wing populist onslaught, the ecologist Greens are gaining in popularity and looking to capture once enemy terrain.

The Greens, Germany's other party on the rise
Ludwig Hartmann (left) with the Greens in Bavaria on October 7th. Photo: DPA

Days ahead of Sunday's Bavaria state polls, the one-time hippie anti-party party faces a long unthinkable prospect: scoring big and then joining forces with the arch-conservative CSU party in the wealthy Alpine state.

Polls there and nationally put the Greens at around 18 percent, making it the second strongest force in Germany and in Bavaria, a decades-long CSU fiefdom, far ahead of the dispirited centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

Bavarian public television acknowledged this new reality and, in its only pre-election TV debate, pitted the CSU state premier Markus Söder against the Greens candidate Ludwig Hartmann, not the SPD's Natascha Kohnen.

SEE ALSO: Green Party has the highest number of voters in its history

The anti-immigration AfD party, which has surged nationwide in the past three years, also looks to enter the Bavarian state assembly. It is polling at around 10 percent while the CSU is expected to lose its absolute majority.

This would force the CSU, which promotes crucifixes on classroom walls, to join forces with its traditional ideological foes, whose pioneers a generation ago entered the national parliament flashing peace signs and handing out flowers.

News site Spiegel Online said Bavarian politics show that, aside from the AfD's rise, there is a little-noticed “second revolution…the rise of the Greens into a mainstream party”.

Nappy-changing outdoors man

In Bavaria, the Greens are popular in gentrified inner-city areas but also among conservatives who feel passionate about preserving Alpine vistas.

Voting Green is no longer a cultural taboo for Bavaria's Catholic rural voters because they “can interpret nature conservation as safeguarding creation and a humanitarian refugee policy as an expression of Christian charity,” said political scientist Gero Neugebauer.

The Greens have profited from the weakness of Merkel's coalition government but also been energized by a charismatic new male-female leadership duo – Robert Habeck, 49, and Annalena Baerbock, 37, both elected in January.

Under their leadership, the party — which scored just 8.9 percent in last September's elections — has sought to shed its image of moralizing do-gooders and started to tackle long-taboo subjects such as German cultural identity and the loaded term “Heimat” (homeland).

The party is still pushing core Green issues, however, from organic agriculture to protecting species diversity. Where other parties have flip-flopped, on climate and immigration, the Greens have consistently fought for clean energy and against the racist far right.

Die Welt daily has also noted the telegenic appeal of Habeck, an author who cultivates the image of an easy-going intellectual, from Germany's wind-swept coastal north near Denmark.

Habeck, said the newspaper, “comes across as the prototypical Scandinavian outdoors man who will change the kids' nappies and handle the household but also looks good chopping wood”.

  Greens the 'new bourgeoisie'

The Greens were born out of the 1960s and 70s pacifist and anti-nuclear protest movements, and joined by East German civil rights activists after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

They first entered government in a 1998-2005 coalition under SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder that ironically broke with Germany's post-World War II taboo and sent troops abroad, to Kosovo and then Afghanistan.

Another milestone on its march toward the centre came in 2011 when the Greens' Winfried Kretschmann became premier of industrial powerhouse state Baden-Württemberg, a post he still holds.

Over the years German society has adopted many Green values — millions ride bicycles to work, buy organic, oppose GM crops and fracking, have solar panels on their roofs and support gay marriage.

Merkel adopted the Greens' signature policy when, after Japan's 2011 Fukushima disaster, she decided to shutter Germany's atomic power plants.

Her open-door policy for refugees was meanwhile cheered more by Greens than her own often skeptical CDU rank-and-file.

After the last two elections, Merkel held exploratory coalition talks with the Greens which in 2017 collapsed only because a third party, the pro-business Free Democrats, pulled out.

Since that time, noted Spiegel Online, the Greens have steadily gained support at the expense of the SPD and Merkel's CDU.

“The Greens are not the new Social Democrats,” it said, “they are the new bourgeoisie.”

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Will Germany’s Greens face tougher election race after series of gaffes?

Germany's resurgent Green party, its sights set on the chancellery in September's election, has stumbled on the campaign trail over undeclared bonus payments and controversial comments about arming Ukraine.

Will Germany's Greens face tougher election race after series of gaffes?
Annalena Baerbock at a Greens Press Conference on May 17th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

But although support for the centre-left, ecologist Greens has slipped in the wake of the missteps, the party remains neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

The Greens dipped by one percentage point in this week’s Forsa poll for broadcasters NTV/RTL but held on to the top spot at 25 percent. Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, which has selected the unpopular Armin Laschet for the race to succeed Merkel, came a close second at 24 percent.

A different poll, carried out by Insa for Bild newspaper, put the
conservatives ahead at 26 percent followed by the Greens on 22 percent.

READ ALSO: From trailblazing radicals to Germany’s ‘most popular party’: Who are the Greens?

Tax slip

Last week, Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock admitted she had failed to declare around 25,000 in supplementary income to parliament. It is Baerbock who has been tapped to lead her party into the September 26th vote.

The 40-year-old, who is thought to have a realistic shot at becoming Germany’s first Green chancellor, called it a “stupid oversight” that has since been corrected.

But opponents have leapt on the slip-up as a sign of hypocrisy from a party championing more transparency in politics.

The Sueddütsche daily said the case did not amount to a corruption scandal like the one that has snagged several of Merkel’s conservatives, who are accused of profiting from face mask contracts early on in the pandemic.

“But it weakens (Baerbock), because her campaign thrives on being more upstanding that her competitors,” it noted.

READ ALSO: ‘Stupid oversight’: German Green Chancellor candidate stumbles after failing to declare bonus

Annalena Baerbock on May 20th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

‘Defensive weapons’

Fellow Greens leader Robert Habeck meanwhile caused a storm when he suggested during a trip to eastern Ukraine that the country should be allowed to buy “defensive weapons” from the West.

The traditionally pacifist Green party was quick to disown the suggestion, saying it supported the current German government policy not to supply weapons to war zones.

Habeck’s remarks nevertheless rattled the centre-left Social Democrats, potential coalition partners in a future Green-led government.

The charismatic but gaffe-prone Habeck rowed back on Wednesday, saying he was referring to “night vision goggles, reconnaissance equipment and ammunition clearance”.

The turmoil comes at a delicate time for the Greens because Baerbock “is still cementing her image among the public”, Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, told AFP.

Baerbock, an expert in international law and mother of two, was chosen in April over Habeck to be the Greens’ chancellor candidate.

The nomination gave the Greens a boost that saw them overtake Merkel’s bloc in opinion polls for the first time.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long.

‘Ironic’ racism

Baerbock quickly became the subject of a barrage of fake news and online attacks, from false claims about her green policies and scrutiny of her education, to a photoshopped nude picture.

The Greens have pushed back, condemning the at times sexist attacks and launching an online “fire service” to expose false stories.

But the party had to put out more fires earlier this month when Green mayor Boris Palmer posted racist remarks on Facebook about a black soccer player.

Palmer claimed his comments had been meant ironically, but members of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg state overwhelmingly voted to exclude him from the party.

Baerbock herself denounced the comments a “racist and repulsive”.

“The Greens are still doing well in the polls,” the Handelsblatt daily
said. “But the election is still four months away. A lot can happen.”