‘Surfing the Zeitgeist’: How the Greens won over Germany
Germany's Green party made record gains in the European elections. How has the party achieved this success – and can it continue?
Beaming smiles, hugs, sunflowers and loud cheers: it's a scene that has become the norm during Germany's Green party election night gatherings in recent months.
And the European Parliament vote on Sunday was no different. With 20 percent of the vote, the Greens' double-digit success was historic, pushing them into second position behind the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party the CSU, and sending a clear message from voters that they are demanding change.
But how has the party, which came last in Germany's federal elections in 2017, snagging just 8.9 percent of the vote, become so favourable?
“The Greens are surfing on top of the Zeitgeist,” political scientist Dr Gero Neugebauer told the Local. “Their main issue – climate, the environment – is indeed an issue which has become of interest for a lot of people who may not be supporters of the Greens in other questions, or who said in the past the Greens are too ideological or so on.
“But now these voters are looking outside and saying it's too hot or it's raining too much. They want a party to address climate issues for their future or their children’s future or grandchildren’s future. So they decided to vote Green."
The Fridays for Future demonstrations, led by young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, have undeniably had an impact on the Green party’s success, prompting many people, including younger generations, to cast their vote for the environmentalists.
Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg speaking at a demo in Berlin. Photo: DPA
Illustrating how successful the Greens were, Peter Matuschek from the Forsa polling institute told The Local that the Greens in Germany had been the only party – apart from the small "other" parties – to increase their number of votes compared to the general elections, winning a massive 3.5 million more votes than in 2017.
In the past, the Greens in Germany were viewed as party who were a bit out of touch with reality. While some voters still hold this viewpoint, for others it has changed, especially in light of the Greens move to the centre of the political spectrum.
Matuschek said the upswing for Greens has been visible in all Forsa weekly polls since 2017.
“The reasons for the Greens' growth are at least twofold,” he said. “They have managed to renew themselves ideologically with a much more pragmatic profile than in previous elections and with a new leadership on the national level, reflecting this much more pragmatic and less ideological approach.”
Matuschek added that the Greens are benefitting from the crisis of the so-called grand coalition's CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
They also “can’t be blamed for mistakes or conflicts" given that they are not currently in power at the federal level in Germany, Neugebauer pointed out.
Who are the Greens?
So just who are Die Grünen in Germany? Billed as a centre-left party, they promote climate protection, integration, digital progression, agricultural reform, e-mobility and social justice issues among other topics.
The Greens were initially founded in West Germany in January 1980, rising from the anti-nuclear energy, environmental, peace, new left, and new social movements of this time.
The party merged with the Greens in the east and teamed up with Alliance 90 (that's why Bündnis 90 is part of their official name), a group of civil rights activists, following reunification in 1990.
Their popularity went up and down, but in recent years support has become more steady. The Greens have seats in 14 of Germany's 16 state legislatures, and in nine of those they form part of a governing coalition, signalling that voters – and other parties – now take them seriously.
The Greens perform particularly well in cities and university towns. In Hamburg, the Greens won more than 31.2 percent of the European election vote. Similarly, in the nearby state of Schleswig-Holstein the party scooped about 29 percent, while in Berlin, 27.8 percent of voters crossed their box at the ballot.
This tweet shows the neighbourhoods in Berlin that voted Green.
Matuschek said in Hamburg the result “certainly reflects a decline of the SPD” which was once a Social Democrat stronghold.
“As for Schleswig-Holstein, it certainly helped that the Greens' chairman, Robert Habeck is from there and was minister in the regional government until last year,” he added.
The Greens' Hannah Neumann Annalena Baerbock and Sven Giegold. Photo: DPA
In fact, the Greens leadership is one of their top selling points. As The Local pointed out last year, the group which started out as a protest party – benefits from the pairing of Habeck and Annalena Baerbock.
The party has worked out how to put people at ease with less of a focus on radical ideas and demands for people to change their lifestyles. They try to project the image of wanting to make the lives of the average German better – while protecting the environment at the same time.
This mix is very attractive to the population right now and explains why a conservative voter – who wouldn't have touched the Greens with a barge pole previously – would give them their support.
Where the Greens don't fare so well is in the east. In Saxony, the AfD was the biggest force with 25.3 percent of the European elections vote, followed by the CDU (23 percent) and The Left (Die Linke), with 11.7 percent.
However, the Greens scooped a respectable 10.3 percent in Saxony, ahead of the SPD, who received just 8.6 percent of the vote.
But their appeal is growing, especially among women and younger voters. Green party membership spiked by almost 20 percent in former east Germany in 2018, federal managing director Michael Kellner told daily Die Welt in February.
Interestingly, Neugebauer said polls show that young people under the age of 18 in the eastern states do tend to support the Greens, followed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). So in the future the Greens might have a bigger chance of success in eastern states.
So who is the typical Green voter?
“Areas with well-educated people with higher wages vote Green,” said Neugebauer.
The Green voter is the type of person who doesn’t have many concerns when it comes to money or housing and thinks: “‘I can vote for the Greens because the Greens are the modern party, while the CDU is the party who doesn’t know what the Zeitgeist really wants,” Neugebauer said.
'The youth won it'
It's fair to say the other big winner of the European elections in Germany is young people.
“The youth has won with two big successes,” said Neugebauer, emphasizing that they made their point with the weekly demonstrations on climate issues.
Furthermore, young people turned up the heat on the ruling parties with the help of the Internet, he added.
YouTuber Rezo posted a 55-minute video called "The destruction of the CDU", around a week before the election, accusing the government coalition, which includes the centre-left SPD, of making policies "for the rich" while failing to act on crucial issues like global warming.
German YouTuber Rezo. Photo: DPA
Published online on May 18th, the video has been viewed millions of times, throwing Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party into crisis-fighting mode.
This is all good news for the Greens: a poll showed that around 30 percent of the under 30s age group voted for the environmentalists.
Graph by Statista for The Local
What happens next?
It's hard to know how much influence the Greens will have in the European parliament. But there will be no doubt that the party will try to keep hammering the message home about the importance of climate protection.
Germany, meanwhile, is looking ahead to the state elections in the east of the country. Here, the AfD is expected to be the big gainers.
So only time will tell if the Greens can continue their rise in Germany.
Neugebauer said the party had to do some soul-searching to decide how they wanted to be perceived in future, indicating that there are still splits in the party when it comes to their positions.
“Some Green party politicians are more pragmatic, some have a rather strong interest in getting into power into a government position,” he said.
Henrike Hahn, right, Bavarian top candidate for the European elections for the Greens on Sunday. Photo: DPA
Matuschek said it will come down to how the Volkspartei – people's parties – behave.
"Whether the surge of the Greens will continue or not will depend not the least on the ability of the CDU/CSU and the SPD to win back voters from the political centre that have defected either to the Greens or to abstention in the last decades," he said.
“It will also depend on whether the Greens will manage to maintain their more pragmatic profile and will not alienate newly gained voters from other parties.
"The fact that the Greens' voters have become more heterogeneous (with the flux of former SPD- and CDU-voters) and less ideological will definitely be a challenge for the Greens, especially once they might be in office on the national level in Germany again."