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

Having just announced their first ever chancellor candidate, Germany's Green Party is now leading in the polls ahead of September’s elections. How did what started as a grassroots movement gain a stronghold in German politics?

From trailblazing radicals to Germany's 'most popular' party: Who are the Greens?
Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Photo: DPA

Though die Grünen (the Greens) are often seen as a marginal party and currently hold around nine percent of seats in the Bundestag, they have steadily been gaining traction at state level and are now polling ahead of Merkel’s conservative party nationally. 

READ ALSO: ‘Germans are in the mood for change’: Greens take lead in new polls

The Greens have been doing things differently from the start, with a consistent focus on equality, ecology and social change, but over the past four decades the party has morphed from a patchwork of peace movements into a cornerstone of national politics.

‘The anti-party party’

The anti-establishment party grew out of the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1960s and 70s, uniting regional organisations across the country with a focus on environmentalism, non-violence and human rights. 

The Green Party provided a political home for those disillusioned with mainstream politics, and viewed itself more as a grassroots democratic movement than a political organisation. Petra Kelly, one of its founding members, even went so far as to call the Greens “the anti-party party”. 

Petra Kelly (left) at a Greens’ meeting in 1984. Photo: DPA

The national Green Party was officially established in January 1980 in Baden-Württemberg’s second largest city Karlsruhe and celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year. Entering the Bundestag in 1983 with 5.6 percent of the vote, the Greens drew their initial success from widespread public opposition to the deployment of new nuclear weapons in West Germany. 

A party rift

Though they have been represented at national level ever since, the Green Party has not been without its controversy. During the 1980s, a major rift emerged between Fundis (fundamentalists) who refused to compromise on the party’s key principles, and Realos (realists) who favoured electability and cooperation with the SPD (Social Democrats). 

By the end of the 1980s it was clear that the Realos were dominating the party, particularly after the formation of a Green-SPD coalition in Hesse. The party’s success was propelled by public outrage at the handling of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which led the Greens to claim 8.3 percent of the vote in elections the following year. 

A national alliance forms

The 1990s were a time of evolution for the Green party as well as for Germany as a whole. In 1993, the West German Green Party merged with Alliance ‘90, a coalition of the East German Greens and various grassroots environmental organisations. The newly unified party was represented nationally for the first time after the 1994 election and entered government in 1998 when they formed a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). 

Though many saw this ascendancy as a huge victory for the party, the decision to form a national alliance with the Social Democrats was seen by many Fundis as a bittersweet victory. 

Now the junior partners in a coalition government, Green politicians found themselves having to support policies they had once vehemently opposed, including voting in favour of German involvement in military efforts in Kosovo in 1999 and deploying troops in Afghanistan in 2001.

These were viewed by many serving politicians and party members alike as a flagrant betrayal of the Greens’ core nonviolent principles and the party was seen to be drifting towards the political centre. This did not seem to harm the party’s overall popularity however, and the Greens achieved their best election result to date in 2002. 

Ousted from government in 2005, when relations with the SPD soured and the alliance failed to win a majority in the Bundestag, the Greens were at a political crossroads, not least because all other major parties had adopted strong environmental policies.

A fresh wind

The election of Cem Özdemir as co-leader in 2008, the first person of Turkish descent to lead a German political party, rejuvenated die Grünen and they went on to win over 10 percent of the vote in the following general election. 

Cem Özdemir at a party meeting in 2019. Photo: DPA

National representation has hovered around 8-10 percent since then, but the party has been growing quickly in the Bundesländer (federal states). The Greens hold seats in 14 of the 16 state legislatures, and govern within coalitions in 11 of these. 

In 2016, the Greens made history in Baden-Württemberg, emerging as the largest party for the first time ever at state-level. Die Grünen are also the second largest party in Bavaria, Hamburg and Hesse. 

Determined not to fade into the mainstream, the Greens remain the only major party in the country to have a shared, gender-balanced leadership, with Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck having led the party together since 2018.

It was announced last week that Baerbock had been selected as the German Green Party’s first ever Kanzlerkandidat (candidate for chancellor). 

READ ALSO: Who is Annalena Baerbock, the ex-trampolinist aiming high in German politics?

Bolstered by a surge in the polls and the announcement of Baerbock as the party’s candidate for national leadership, the Greens gained a record 2,159 new members between Monday and Friday last week. 

Polling at 28 percent nationally, despite the challenge posed by the pandemic for campaigning, the Greens are hoping to cause some disruption in September’s elections. 

The Green Party is now fighting to be at the centre of German politics, and the main message that emerged from their party conference at the end of last year was “we’ve been in opposition long enough. it’s time to move into the driving seat.” 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


ANALYSIS: Greens face dashed hopes – and new leverage in German vote aftermath

With growing fears about global warming, deadly floods linked to climate change and a new political landscape as Angela Merkel leaves the stage, it should have been the German Greens' year.

ANALYSIS: Greens face dashed hopes - and new leverage in German vote aftermath
The Greens co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck at the Greens' election event in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

After launching their campaign for Sunday’s general election in the spring with a youthful, energetic candidate in Annalena Baerbock, the sky seemed to be the limit – perhaps even taking the chancellery.

But although Germany has never seen an election campaign so focused on the climate crisis, the party turned in a third-place finish behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), leading the race by a whisker, and the outgoing Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

However Baerbock, 40, proved popular with young voters and her party with around 14 percent strongly improved on its 8.9 percent score from four years ago.

It is now widely expected to play a key kingmaker role in the coalition haggling to form a government.

“We wanted to win the chancellery, unfortunately that wasn’t possible,” Baerbock said late Sunday.

“We made mistakes but we have a clear mandate for our country and we will respect it. This country needs a government that will fight global warming – that’s the voters’ message.”

A fateful series of missteps by Baerbock as well as a perhaps more tepid appetite for change among Germans than first hoped saw the Greens’ initial
lead fizzle by early summer.

LIVE: Centre-left Social Democrats edge ahead in German election results

It never recovered.

“It was a historic chance for the Greens,” Der Spiegel wrote in a recent cover story on Baerbock’s “catastrophic mistakes”.

“The Greens stand like no other party for the big issue of our time but that doesn’t begin to ensure that they win majorities. They need a broader base.”

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

‘Shameless and complacent’

Baerbock captured the imagination of Germans when she announced her candidacy in April, and her promise of a fresh start after 16 years of Merkel rocketed the party to the top of the polls.

But by this week, even her co-party leader Robert Habeck admitted that the Greens had been forced to set their sights lower.

“The distance to the chancellery has grown quite large of course,” he told the daily Die Welt.

“We saw that our political rivals didn’t have much interest in change and kept saying ‘Yes, yes, climate protection is nice but it shouldn’t be too expensive’.

Without recognising that not protecting the climate is the most expensive answer.”

He said the Greens’ rivals “want to continue the Merkel era in the campaign, as shameless and complacent as possible”.

‘Hold all the cards’

Critics sought to portray the Greens as a “prohibition party” that would lead to rises in petrol, electricity and air ticket prices.

The party has advocated stopping coal energy by 2030 instead of the current 2038, and wants production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While Germans pay lip service to climate protection, a recent poll for the independent Allensbach Institute found 55 percent oppose paying more to ensure it.

“The Germans have decades of prosperity and growth behind them – there were hardly limits and that burned its way deep into the public consciousness,” Spiegel said.

“Doing without is linked to dark times – triggering memories among the very old of (wartime) turnip soup and alienation among the young used to having more and more to choose from.”

On the other hand climate activists, who rallied in their hundreds of thousands across Germany on Friday, said even the Greens’ ambitious programme would fall short in heading off climate-linked disasters in the coming decades.   

Meanwhile Baerbock’s relative inexperience was laid bare under the hot campaign spotlight.

“She overestimated her abilities and then she doubted herself – not a good combination,” Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education
near Munich, told AFP.

“She should have been more patient and waited until next time.”

Despite the sobering outcome, the Greens nevertheless look well-placed to make the most of a junior role, under either SPD candidate Olaf Scholz or the

Armin Laschet, political analyst Karl-Rudolf Korte told ZDF public television as the results came in.

He said “all eyes” would be on the Greens and the other potential kingmaker, the pro-business Free Democrats, who came in fourth place with about 11.5 percent.

“Those two parties hold all the cards,” he said.

By Deborah COLE