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‘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?

‘Surfing the Zeitgeist’: How the Greens won over Germany
The Greens' co-leader Annalena Baerbock, Maike Schaefer, Sven Giegold and co-leader Robert Habeck on Monday. Photo: DPA

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.

READ ALSO: The winners and losers: Six things to know about the EU election in Germany

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).

He said the implosion of these parties was pushing voters from both sides to the Greens – and that had been seen in state elections in Bavaria and Hesse last year.

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.

SEE ALSO: Video: How the Green Party is shaking up Bavarian elections

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.

READ ALSO: 'Younger and more eastern': Green Party boasts record membership

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.

READ ALSO: Meet the east German Greens candidate offering another alternative

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.

READ ALSO: German YouTuber shakes up mainstream politics with viral video

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.”

Member comments

  1. Nice to know. But just focusing on one message of Climate change is not enough. I have not read the manifesto of The Greens but they need to focus on other major challenges of immigration and slowing European economy and lack of EU integration, to attract a wider audience.

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Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

Best known as an anti-migrant party, Germany's far-right AfD has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to court a new type of voter ahead of regional elections in the state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday: anti-shutdown activists.

Germany's far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance
Björn Höcke, party chairman in Thuringia, at an election event in Merseburg, Saxony-Anhalt on May 29th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

“Sending so many people into poverty with so few infections is problematic for us,” is how Oliver Kirchner, the AfD’s top candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, views the measures ordered by the government to halt Covid-19 transmission.

The anti-shutdown stance seems to be paying off in the former East German state. The party is riding high in the polls and even stands a chance of winning a regional election for the first time.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD chooses hardline team ahead of national elections

Surveys have the AfD neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, with the Bild daily even predicting victory for the far-right party on 26 percent, ahead of the CDU on 25 percent.

In Saxony-Anhalt’s last election in 2016, the CDU was the biggest party, scoring 30 percent and forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

But the CDU has taken a hammering in the opinion polls in recent months, with voters unhappy with the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

Social deprivation

A victory for the AfD would spell a huge upset for the conservatives just four months ahead of a general election in Germany — the first in 16 years not to feature Merkel.

They started out campaigning against the euro currency in 2013. Then in 2015 they capitalised on public anger over Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The party caused a sensation in Germany’s last general election in 2017 when it secured almost 13 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time as the largest opposition party.

Troubled by internal divisions and accusations of ties to neo-Nazi fringe groups, the party has more recently seen its support at the national level stagnate at between 10 and 12 percent.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD investigated over election ties

The party is also controversial in Saxony-Anhalt itself. In state capital Magdeburg, posters showing local candidate Hagen Kohl have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and the words “Never again”.

For wine merchant Jan Buhmann, 57, victory for the far-right party would be a “disaster”.

“The pandemic has shown that we need new ideas. We need young people, we need dynamism in the state. For me, the AfD does not stand for that,” he said.

Yet the AfD’s core supporters have largely remained unwavering in the former East German states.

For pensioner Hans-Joachim Peters, 73, the AfD is “the only party that actually tells it like it is”.

Politicians should “think less about Europe and more about Germany”, he told AFP in Magdeburg. AfD campaigners there were handing out flyers calling for “resistance” and “an end to all anti-constitutional restrictions on our liberties”.

Political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University puts the AfD’s core strength in eastern Germany down to “social deprivation and frustration” resulting from problems with reunification.

The party’s latest anti-corona restrictions stance has also helped it play up its anti-establishment credentials, adding some voters to its core base, he said.

Other east German states in which the AfD has a stronghold, such as Saxony and Thuringia, continue to have the highest 7-day incidences per 100,000 residents in the country. Saxony-Anhalt’s 7-day incidence, however, currently is below the national average (31.3) as of Wednesday June 3rd.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Hijab snub

Funke predicted the AfD would attract broadly the same voters in
Saxony-Anhalt as it did in 2016, when it won 24 percent of the vote.

“Some have dropped off because the party is too radical, some radicals who didn’t vote are now voting and some of those who are anti-corona are also voting for the AfD,” he said.

The Sachsen-Anhalt-Monitor 2020 report, commissioned by the local government, found that the main concern for voters in the region was the economic fallout from the pandemic. But the AfD’s core selling point — immigration and refugees — was number two on their list.

According to AfD candidate Kirchner, many people in Saxony-Anhalt still view the influx of refugees to Germany “very critically”.

“And I think they are right,” he said at a campaign stand in Magdeburg decked in the AfD’s signature blue. “Who is going to rebuild Syria? Who is going to do that if everyone comes here?”

When a young woman wearing a hijab walked past the stand, no one attempted to hand her a flyer.

By Femke Colborne