Can Germany’s Greens win over voters in eastern states ahead of election?

Long popular in western cities, Germany's Greens are bumping up against a wall with voters in the ex-communist east that could cost them the chance to snatch Chancellor Angela Merkel's crown when she retires this year.

Can Germany's Greens win over voters in eastern states ahead of election?
Green co-leader and chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt ahead of the regional election there. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

The now 40-year-old centre-left ecologist party will gather from Friday for a congress to plot the course toward September’s general election after a bruising performance last Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt state.

The poor vote showing cemented an image of lost momentum for the party, which for the first time in its history is staking a claim to the chancellery. 

READ ALSO: Merkel’s conservatives win last state vote before election

“The Greens are still both: potentially the strongest political force in the country and a small niche party, depending on the place, time and
situation,” news weekly Der Spiegel said.

Despite ambitions for a double-digit result, the Greens notched up just six percent in the country’s poorest state – less than a point higher than their 2016 score.

“It wasn’t what we had hoped,” admitted a dejected Annalena Baerbock, also 40, the Greens’ chancellor candidate.

“Some of our messaging on climate protection failed to cut through to the voters,” she said, despite devastating droughts in the rural region in recent summers.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s CDU gains momentum after victory in key German state vote

“In the east, which is still marked by the shock of reunification, potentially costly ecological measures are not a big draw for voters,”  political scientist Hajo Funke told AFP.

The election handed Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) a resounding win with 37 percent of the vote, pushing the far-right AfD into a distant second place with 21 percent.

The strong outcome put wind in the sails of CDU leader Armin Laschet, Baerbock’s main opponent to run Europe’s top economy after 16 years of Merkel at the helm.

Two-horse race 

The Greens, out of federal government since 2005, had been riding high at the national level, with voters telling pollsters the climate crisis is their  top concern, albeit by a much larger margin in the west.

A survey last month also showed Germans hungry for change, with more than 60 percent hoping for a new government after the election.

Senior Greens say they are happy the campaign is shaping up as a two-horse race, and that excitement about the youthful Baerbock, a mother of two small children, has endured among their energised base.

But they acknowledge Baerbock, who is from the west but represents an eastern constituency outside Berlin in parliament, will have to make the
Greens more than an one-issue party if they hope to win outright.

Greens co-leader Robert Habeck said the weekend election disappointment served as a wake-up call that they would need to “look beyond climate protection”.

He cited addressing the growing cleft between rural poverty and urban wealth, particularly in creating opportunities for young jobseekers, and
expanding public transport infrastructure as sure vote winners.

He acknowledged that the “enormous political effort” required to bring down carbon dioxide emissions would have to be accompanied by “social measures” to cushion the blow to those whose jobs would be shed in the energy transition.

The party is also planning a targeted campaign for voters over the age of 60 in both east and west, arguing that “climate protection is also a policy for your grandkids”.

‘Bad luck and slip-ups’

But beyond the issues preoccupying voters in the east, whose economic output continues to lag behind the west three decades after reunification, a series of gaffes by Baerbock in recent weeks has taken some of the shine off.

“There wasn’t a Baerbock effect in the Saxony-Anhalt election – if anything she probably weighed the state party down with oversights, bad luck
and slip-ups,” business newspaper Handelsblatt said.

A failure to declare to parliament a bonus she received from the party and inaccuracies – since corrected – on her CV have undermined the party’s message of improved transparency.

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

Comments by Habeck on a visit to Kiev last month appearing to back supplying arms to Ukraine added to negative headlines, even if he quickly
rowed them back.

Green proposals for hiking petrol prices and eliminating domestic flights in favour of rail and bus connections have also gone down badly in some quarters.

Senior Green officials admit it will be an uphill battle to counter conservative bids to paint them as a party just for latte-sipping, electric
vehicle-driving urbanites.

“We have got to keep working on making clear that we are a party at home in cities and the countryside,” parliamentary group leader Katrin  Goering-Eckardt, who is from the eastern state of Thuringia, told public radio.

By Mathieu FOULKES and Deborah COLE

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Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

Germany will reinstate its so-called debt brake in 2023 after suspending it for three years to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the finance ministry said Wednesday.

Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

The government will borrow 17.2 billion euros ($18.1 million) next year, adhering to the rule enshrined in the constitution that normally limits

Germany’s public deficit to 0.35 percent of overall annual economic output, despite new spending as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the sources said.

The new borrowing set out in a draft budget to be presented to the cabinet on Friday is almost 10 billion euros higher than a previous figure for 2023 announced in April.

However, “despite a considerable increase in costs, the debt brake will be respected,” one of the sources said.

Although Germany is traditionally a frugal nation, the government broke its own debt rules at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and unleashed vast financial aid to steer the economy through the crisis.

READ ALSO: Debt-averse Germany to take on new borrowings to soften pandemic blow

The government has this year unveiled a multi-billion-euro support package to help companies in Europe’s biggest economy weather the fallout from the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia.

Berlin has also spent billions to diversify its energy supply to reduce its dependence on Russia, as well as investing heavily in plans to tackle climate change and push digital technology.

But despite the additional spending, Finance Minister Christian Lindner has maintained the aim to reinstate the debt brake in 2023.