Survival Bid

Green Is Not the New Black

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German Greens had hoped to be part of a future coalition but their dwindling support means they risk not even making it into parliament.

  • Facts


    • The Green Party’s poll numbers in North Rhine-Westphalia, where elections are to be held in May, are somewhere around 6 percent, nationwide at 8 percent – or less.
    • There were already signs of a looming Green crisis before Martin Schulz took over the Social Democrats.
    • Global warming is escalating and extreme weather conditions are dramatically increasing.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
Nach der Landtagswahl im Saarland – Bundesvorstand Grüne
Green Party leaders Simone Peter und Cem Özdemir don't really like what they see. Source: Britta Pedersen

Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, global warming is escalating, and extreme weather conditions are dramatically increasing. But strangely enough, the party dedicated to saving a crisis-stricken world is in a crisis itself.

Last Sunday the Greens’ alarm bells went off for the first time at the start of Germany’s election year. Certainly, the Greens’ defeat in the German state of Saarland, where they will no longer be represented in the state parliament, has very specific causes not to be found elsewhere. But that’s little comfort for the environmentalist party.

Their poll numbers in North Rhine-Westphalia, where elections are to be held in May, are somewhere around 6 percent, nationwide at 8 percent – or less. These days, old hands in the Green party are grimly taking note that the party has always done better in the opinion polls than in the elections. Even there, they are currently hovering just above the minimum level for survival.

There were already signs of a looming Green crisis before Martin Schulz took over the Social Democrats. But with his enthronement as the most promising candidate for chancellor, the Greens’ situation has been exacerbated even further. As positively as the revived competition between the two major parties is being seen, the immediate consequences for the Greens themselves are just as unpleasant. The polarization is directing attention to the two big parties, and away from the efforts of the smallest opposition party.

They may be the ones raising the existential political issues – from climate change to the global refugee crisis – but at the same time they are unable to plausibly show how they could achieve the sweeping changes they seek after the fall elections. The urgency of their demands is in sharp contrast to their lack of prospects of taking political power. The Greens continually profess that they are first and foremost concerned about their political goals, and then about coalitions. And yet they know that it will be all the more difficult for them to give weight to their issues in the election year, while the less concrete their chances of achieving them appear. Without prospects of gaining power, no coverage of their issues, and no gratifying likelihood of being elected, the Greens must break out of this vicious circle in the coming months.

Many of the things the party had focused on in its formative years have in the intervening years become part of the country’s DNA.

It’s easy to pinpoint the exact date when the party’s latest crisis cycle began. It was the night of October 15, 2013, following the federal election, when exploratory talks for a coalition with the Christian Democrats collapsed. After eight years in opposition, a pretty muddled election year, and a disappointing result, the Greens were still offered the chance to participate in government. But instead of taking the plunge, the party retreated to the opposition benches, half intimidated, half defiant.

In opposition, the passed-up opportunity became an option for the future. For almost three years, not only the inveterate realists, but many leftists also assumed that next time around there would be a CDU-Green coalition. The direction Chancellor Angela Merkel was taking with her modernizing social policy, phasing out nuclear power and the energy transition alone were enough to recommend her as a green-compatible chancellor. Then, with her refugee policy in the summer and fall of 2015, the Greens’ last reservations disappeared.

Thus it seemed only logical when at the beginning of the year, the party base decided on a leadership duo that had for years been making an effort to persuade the Greens to work with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Ironically, Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir were chosen just as it seemed possible that, with Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat could become chancellor for the first time in years. The whole strategic dilemma of the Greens was visible for a moment in the harsh reaction with which the two Greens reacted to the SPD party members’ euphoria over Mr. Schulz.

28 p10 Election in Saarland-01

The new SPD leader has weakened both the Greens and the CDU. And with that, their mutual prospects of power are dwindling, while the revitalization of the SPD is not automatically bringing forth new possibilities. An SPD-Green coalition is still not a realistic option to build an election campaign around. And a coalition of the SPD, the left-wing Left Party and the Greens, as the elections in Saarland have shown, is problematic in the eyes of the voters.

That is why it is clearly necessary for the Greens – with or without Mr. Schulz – to hold to their “course of independence.” They came up with it in 2005 at the end of the SPD-Green coalition, not because the Greens wanted to distance themselves from the SPD but because the alliance was simply unable to secure a majority. Since then, the Greens have been wooing voters with their program, not with power projections. “We are a party that defines itself on its own terms,” explains Tarek Al-Wazir, who is governing together with the CDU in Hesse. The Greens are “able to connect with all sides,” which only works well when the party really radiates “self-confidence in the conviction of its program.”

That sounds ambitious and confident, like an ideal election campaign. It can also be seen from a more critical standpoint. “Independence” is also a term that can be used to gloss over a lack of coalition prospects, or to minimize the demobilizing effect of opposing options. A CDU-Green coalition is just as unsavory a prospect for radical Greens as SPD-Left-Green is for many centrist Greens.

And it is precisely because the proclaimed independence relies on the issues that it sounds like a dramatic admission when Katrin Göring-Eckardt said earlier this week that Green issues “are not exactly being perceived as hot shit” so far in this crucial election year. That sounds a bit off-hand, but means the party isn’t making any impact at present with its issues.

At the same time, the Greens can hardly be accused of beating around the bush about the urgency of their program. For example, those who heard the latest findings from the Potsdam climate researcher, Stefan Ramstorf, at the Green economic congress in Berlin at the beginning of March wouldn’t think that Ms. Göring-Eckardt was exaggerating when she said that global warming has become “a question of the survival of humankind.” Neither does the Green election program’s ecological transformation strategy, which Anton Hofreiter presented, appear exaggerated. Perhaps German politics has not only neglected the issue of social justice in recent years, but the environmental crisis, as well.

The demands of the ecology party to decouple growth from resource consumption and quality of life sounds old-school green and highly relevant. The fact that the party long ago traded in their fundamental points of view for piecemeal pragmatism is not apparent in their election program. The party presented radical and fairly specific proposals for the fields of industry, energy production, food, and transport.

The Schulz SPD is leaving the area of ecological change to the Greens, and is taking “Justice” to international dimensions. The question is how they plan to get through to voters, since the Schulz SPD is increasingly presenting itself as a pro-European democracy movement. That is the idealistic underpinning of their justice campaign. And it is actually something one would have expected more from an environmentalist party. And as the last standard bearers of the Merkelian welcoming culture for refugees, the Greens have no competition, anyway.

The Greens have made an impact on Germany in recent decades. At times, it seemed as if changes in social policy were secretly following a Green script. Many of the things the party had focused on in its formative years in terms of ecology, grassroots democracy, feminism or antiauthoritarian concepts have in the intervening years become part of the country’s DNA.

But its political influence has always lagged behind the impact of its ideas. It already managed to win 8.3 percent in the 1987 federal elections; 25 years later – after a center-right coalition launched the phasing out of nuclear energy and the energy transition – it reached 8.4 percent. In terms of political power, the Greens are selling themselves short.

Neither its current participation in 11 state governments, nor the pinnacle of Green election success in Baden-Württemberg can change anything about that. For as spectacular as Winfried Kretschmann’s triumph looks, at the same time, it is just as indicative of how the rest of the party has made itself immune to it.

For close to four decades, the Greens have been dealing with the German mainstream – and still have a hellish fear of being appropriated by the mainstream. A Green state premier who prays for the CDU chancellor, who prefers the conservative Bavarian premier, Horst Seehofer, to the Left Party Thuringia premier, Bodo Ramelow, and who wants to drive out his party’s moralizing at every opportunity, is making his contribution in cementing the Greens’ self-image. It wasn’t long ago that the Greens’ path to becoming a major party was being discussed. In light of the current situation, this seems rather whimsically absurd.

Perhaps the Greens’ crisis is reminiscent of 1998. That year brought the first SPD-Green federal government and it was not only the Green participation in government, but the Green party itself that was questioned for months. Back then, it also happened to be an SPD chancellor candidate, Gerhard Schröder, causing a stir. At the time, the Greens created political turmoil with their legendary resolution to increase the price of a liter of gasoline to 5 deutsche marks. Already close to power but still not a reliable partner at the federal level, their unpredictability suddenly became a threat to the party’s survival.

But in contrast to today, back in 1998 the Greens had a clear possibility of gaining power. For that reason alone, their ideas were suddenly taken very seriously despite the party’s rebellious character, Mr. Fischer, being at the top, causing external uproar while claiming authority internally. Even then, the party only managed to win 6.7 percent of the vote.

A prevailing theory that is popular when the Greens are going through a crisis is that the party is a victim of its own success. Because its issues are either dealt with or taken over by everyone else, the party has made itself superfluous. A glance at the Greens’ campaign program doesn’t support this thesis, yet the impression was able to take hold. The Green party leadership certainly has no more illusions about the situation. They now want to start beating the drum earlier than originally planned, beating the drum for major issues. And for the survival of the polar bears. And the Greens.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!