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Why is the Green party suddenly flying high in Germany?

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Why is the Green party suddenly flying high in Germany?
Robert Habeck and Anton Hofreiter, celebrate election success in Bavaria. Photo: DPA
16:05 CEST+02:00
Last year the Green Party suffered the humiliation of being ejected from the Saarland state parliament before limping in last in the national election. 12 months later they scored a stunning success in the Bavarian state election, a feat they are set to repeat on Sunday in Hesse. What explains this remarkable turnaround?

“The issues that we are talking about aren’t exactly seen as ‘hot shit’ by the German public.” Those were the blunt words of Green party leader Katrin Göring-Eckard in the spring of 2017 after they failed to win the 5 percent of votes necessary to stay in the state parliament in Saarland.

That humiliation was followed by months of polls which suggested the German public were contemplating throwing the environmentalists out of the Bundestag too. Given the circumstances, a result of 8.9 percent in the national election almost seemed like a success.

A year later and the Green party’s ambitions have radically changed.

In the state election in Bavaria earlier this month the Greens became the second biggest party, more than doubling their vote share to 17.5 percent. On Sunday they are projected to win around 20 percent of the vote in Hesse, potentially giving them the power to form a government in the wealthy central state.

Meanwhile if a national election were to be held tomorrow, several recent polls have predicted the Greens would become the second largest party behind Angela Merkel’s Christian Union.

Less finger-waggy

So, what explains the remarkable turnaround in the environmentalists’ fortunes?

According to analysts, the protest party that first entered the Bundestag in the early 1980s literally clothed in in tie-dyed T-shirts and sandals have finally grown up.

“The Greens showed during coalition negotiations after the national election last year that they were serious about joining the government and didn’t give up on the talks [which were eventually collapsed by the pro-business FDP]”, Peter Matuschek from the Forsa polling institute told The Local.

“They have now shown in several states including Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg [where they are in state governments] that they can be pragmatic and this makes them more appealing to a wider spectrum of voters,” he continued.

This is all a far cry from the group which was derided as the Verbotspartei (banning party) at the start of the century over a call for Germany to be vegetarian on one day of the week.

The new leadership are less finger-waggy. The youthful pairing of Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock aren’t afraid to admit to occasionally drinking beer from a can - a fact that makes them less scary to the environmentally conscious voter who is more “flexitarian” than full on vegan.

Others at the top of the party are even more willing to flout Green orthodoxy. Party leader in Hesse, Tarek al-Wazir, loudly supported the TTIP free trade deal with the US, while the Baden-Württemberg state premier Winfried Kretschmann drives a Mercedes Benz.

The new message is optimism. “They have managed to bring various green issues together - climate change, air quality and transportation - and promote it as an answer to making the lives of Germans better,” says Dr. Gero Neugebauer, an academic at the Free University in Berlin.

While renewal within the party has no doubt played its role, analysts are keen to stress that external factors are just as, if not more, important to the sudden upsurge in support for the Greens.

“The main parties have left a vacuum open in the middle of the political spectrum,” says Matuschek. “The Christian Union have been thinking about moving right for a while to follow the Alternative for Germany. The SPD left the centre a while ago.

"But the German voters remain in the centre ground and more and more of them are losing the belief that the main parties represent them.”

Refugee crisis a factor

Almost inevitably, the refugee crisis is a central factor here. Neugebauer argues that Christian Union voters who supported Merkel’s decision to open the borders in 2015 but who have been disillusioned by the hardening of the party’s line on migrants since the AfD entered the national parliament. These people have found a new home with the Greens, the only centrist party who remained consistently pro-refugee.

Neugebauer also believes that the Greens have profited to an extent from the success of the AfD’s stridently anti-immigrant tone.

“The Greens are at the other end of the ideological pole from the AfD,” he says. “When you look a little closer you’ll see that they aren’t just talking about the environment. They are talking about patriotism, but for them this is an open and tolerant word, one that’s says welcome to other people.

"That’s winning them votes in the centre of society where people are worried about the direction being taken by the Christian Union.”

But widening their voter base comes with natural risks for the Greens. As more and more of their voters come from the conservative side of the political spectrum they will be caught in an increasingly delicate balancing act, Matuschek warns.

A backlash already?

Already the pages of left-leaning newspapers are filling up with concern at the Greens' new direction. Spiegel columnist Valerie Höhne penned an article on Thursday titled “left, right? Doesn’t matter” scolding the party for their loss of identity.

“A broadening of the electorate always means a broadening of opinions, positions and concerns. In a party that is as ideologically shaped as the Greens are, this strategy can fail,” Höhne warned.

For Matuschek, such concerns need to be weighed against the fact that Green voters are the most loyal in Germany. “They have always been good at getting their base out. Green voters are much less likely to migrate than those of other parties,” he states.

Still though, no one in the Green party should be getting too carried away. Back in 2011 the party polled at 28 percent in one national survey, a level of support which would have allowed them to build a government if it had translated to similar success at the polling station.

But at the next election two years later the Green hype had passed: they won 8.4 percent.

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