State Election

The Litmus Test

Winfried Kretschmann: Will the Green Party's liberal views on refugees tank his bid for re-election?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Results in Baden-Württember’s state election in March could serve as a litmus test for national elections in 2017, measuring the political fallout from the refugee crisis.

  • Facts


    • The Green Party gained control of the state government of Baden-Württemberg in 2011.
    • The southwestern state is Germany’s third largest in size and population and has the highest percentage of industry among the nation’s 16 states.
    • Winfried Kretschmann has two big problems that could prevent his re-election as state premier: a weak coalition partner and the refugee crisis.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Germany’s first and only Green Party premier will be up for re-election in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg in March. In a place known as a bastion of small- and mid-sized companies, the state’s premier, Winfried Kretschmann, enjoys widespread popularity – but his re-election seems unlikely. And it’s not even his own fault.

Mr. Kretschmann has pushed through some tough projects, like Stuttgart 21, the construction of the new main train station.

“Things are finally proceeding with Stuttgart 21,” said Andreas Richter,  president of Stuttgart’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce. “I hadn’t expected that.”

Stuttgart 21 ranks among Germany’s most controversial large-scale building projects. Mass protests, riots and violent attacks had erupted over the expensive project for a new train station and railway route. The Green Party offered particularly stiff opposition. When the party took over the state government in 2011, the project hung in the balance. After opponents to the project were defeated in a referendum, the €6 billion, or $6.6 billion, project got underway.

“The refugee crisis will automatically become an issue in the electoral campaign.”

Guido Wolf, CDU contender

The smooth progress of Stuttgart 21 is typical for the pragmatism of the first German state government led by the Green Party.

The project attracted hefty protests when Mr. Kretschmann, a high-school teacher, took office in May 2011. Business representatives warned of government overreach and the flight of production plants. Baden-Württemberg has the highest percentage of industry among Germany’s states.

Today, about three months before elections for the state parliament in March, the shrill tones have grown silent on both sides.

Nikolas Stihl, the owner and chief executive of a power equipment company by the same name, acknowledges the many difficulties facing Baden-Württemberg and its state premier. “If Mr. Kretschmann wins the election, I won’t turn pale as a ghost and seek an exit from Germany,” he said.

The employers’ association of Baden-Württemberg, likewise, has a forbearing attitude toward the coalition the Greens and Social Democrats. It points to deficits in school policy and road construction, and considers the promotion of state interests on the federal level to be insufficient. But all in all, the association’s president, Rainer Dulger, said he would give the state government a “B-.”

Directly after assuming office, the coalition raised the tax on acquisition of real estate from 3.5 percent to 5.0 percent and eliminated fees for college study. Later, a law was passed requiring observance of a wage scale. A few months ago, workers were guaranteed the right to five days of paid educational leave.

As for construction legislation, the government imposed various environmental regulations and increased bureaucracy and expenses for constructors: for example, the planting of grass on roofs and detailed requirements about bicycle racks that went so far as to dictate the distance between kickstands.

Especially in the first years, school policy turned chaotic through the introduction of a new concept, the comprehensive school. Minister of Culture Gabriele Warminski-Leitheusser, a Social Democrat, ultimately had to back down.

Until the middle of this year, the expansion of wind power proceeded so slowly that Mr. Kretschmann, contrary to his basic nature, had to yell repeatedly during cabinet meetings and call the responsible ministers to account. Since then, the Green environmental minister, Franz Untersteller, is called “Flop-Franz” by the opposition.

But all in all, the government initiated some Green and Social Democratic policies but passed no fundamentally anti-industrial legislation.

“Mr. Kretschmann quickly recognized that an industry- and export-state can’t be governed on the basis of resolutions passed at a Green Party congress,” Mr. Richter said. So there was “no ideological grass-roots revolution.”

This is mirrored in real economic data: During the first half of 2015, with a rate of 3.1 percent, the economy in Baden-Württemberg grew more vigorously than in any other German state. There is even special praise from companies for the government’s trained-personnel offensive, a new concept for financing colleges, the decision to introduce economics as a school subject and the expansion of broadband Internet connection.

Even the Green transportation minister and opponent to Stuttgart 21, Winfried Hermann, who initially behaved in such a fundamentalist manner that economic circles gave him the nickname “North Korean,” has become “somewhat more elastic,” Mr. Richter said. When in response to the VW emissions scandal Mr. Hermann gave thought in public to unannounced emissions tests in Baden-Württemberg, a sort of doping test for local automotive companies, he was quickly reined in by Mr. Kretschmann.

That sort of intervention by the boss is no isolated incident: Green Party functionaries and parliamentarians on the left had to grind their teeth and recognize that when push came to shove, their head of government didn’t feel bound by Green dogma, party congress resolutions and position papers.

“Things become much clearer when you carry responsibility for a state and its economic development,” Mr. Kretschmann said. This year, he was the speaker at the anniversary of the Mercedes factory in Sindelfingen, and he visited the Daimler plant in Beijing with visible pride. He stated flatteringly that he “admires the many innovative small and mid-sized businesses that stretch toward the ceiling day after day in order to survive in global competition.” Family-firm entrepreneurs such as Mr. Stihl consider his opposition to tax increases and the federal government’s plans to raise the inheritance tax to be “exemplary.”

Green Party functionaries and parliamentarians on the Left had to grind their teeth and recognize that when push came to shove, their head of government didn't feel bound by Green dogma

From a Green Party perspective, Mr. Kretschmann is a conservative. So he can scarcely be touched by the political opposition. The 67-year-old cultivates a presidential style that is not entirely free of coquetry. The Catholic politician prefers to spice up his speeches more with quotations from the philosopher Hannah Arendt than with references to budgetary balances or industrial production. His rate of approval is around 70 percent and extends far into the conservative milieu.

But Mr. Kretschmann has two big problems that could prevent his reelection and send him into retirement. On the one hand, there is the continuing infirmity of his coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. In polls, the Social Democrats limp along at 18 percent.

At the moment, the Greens and the Social Democrats would no longer have a majority. If the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, AfD, enters the state parliament, as seems quite likely, and the liberal Federal Democratic Party manages to return, which is certainly possible, then  there could again be a change of government in Stuttgart in March. Mr. Kretschmann categorically excludes a collaboration with the “sectarians” from the Left Party.

Many people attribute the crisis of the Social Democrats to Nils Schmid, the economics and finance minister. The lawyer has been trying hard and even enjoys some esteem in economic circles, but he is so much in the shadow of the charismatic state premier that he has become unrecognizable. The fact that the state budget is currently in the black is regarded by financial experts as no excessively heroic achievement given the flourishing tax revenues of the state.

“The fact that Baden-Württemberg is not liquidating any debt betrays an unambitious financial policy,” Mr. Stihl said.

Mr. Kretschmann’s second problem is the refugee issue. In the runup to the federal elections in 2017, state politics will be expected to recede into the background, just as they did in 2011. At that time, state parliamentary elections were overshadowed by Fukushima and opposition to Stuttgart 21. Both issues were tailor-made for the Green Party and assured it record results of 24.2 percent.

Now the signs are reversed. The traditionally liberal attitude of the Greens regarding asylum policy could cost the party many votes. According to current surveys by the research group Wahlen, 72 percent of voters in southwestern Germany consider the refugee issue to be the most critical problem in the country. The next nearest issue is school and education policy, with only 17 percent.

“The refugee crisis will automatically become an issue in the electoral campaign,” said Mr. Kretschmann’s opponent Guido Wolf, 54, a member of the Christian Democratic Union. He added a Christian Democratic-led government would “proceed much more decisively regarding refugees than has the zig-zagging Green-Red coalition.” The plan, he pointed out, would be “to switch decisively from cash to non-cash benefits, increase the number of deportations and argue on the federal level for a limit of the right of family unification for migrants.”

Although current surveys show the Christian Democrats winning 37 percent of the votes, making it the strongest party, the party isn’t doing particulary well in southwestern Germany. Only 17 percent of Baden-Württemberg’s voters would vote for Mr. Wolf as state premier today, according to the polls.


This article originally appeared in German weekly Die Zeit. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!