When the German Greens, born of the 1970s’ counterculture, first entered the Bundestag in 1983, they conspicuously looked the part. Amid the buttoned-up parliamentarians of the mainstream parties, they came in beards, jeans and sneakers. They behaved the part, too. During a verbal tussle in the Bundestag in 1984, one up-and-coming Green, Joschka Fischer, yelled “If I may say so, Mr. President, you are an asshole” and stormed out. Irreverent, revolutionary, idealistic, anti-authoritarian – that’s how the Greens saw themselves and wanted to be seen.
How times change. As the decades passed, Germany’s Greens became the world’s largest environmentalist party, with 60,000 members today. Many of their once-revolutionary ideas have become mainstream. Germans of almost all stripes today recycle their garbage, oppose nuclear power, believe in gender equality and share other views once considered “green.” In the process, the Greens have also grown up and lost some of their hue. In 1998, led by the same Joschka Fischer of asshole notoriety, they formed part of the German government and Mr. Fischer became foreign minister. Today, they are just another center-left party struggling to stay distinct and relevant.
“They’re just environmental idiots who will disappear soon.”
As a party, the Greens were formally launched in 1980 by a rowdy band of pacifist idealists, including Petra Kelly, Otto Schily and Hans-Christian Ströbele. Many belonged to the ’68 generation of West German left-wing activists. They championed environmentalism, disarmament, nonviolence and sexual liberation. Some of their demands were outlandish, like having Germany leave NATO and raising the price of gasoline to several euros a gallon. Then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt dismissed them outright: “They’re just environmental idiots who will disappear soon.”
From the start, the Greens were torn by infighting between the “realos” (moderate realists) and the “fundis” (radical fundamentalists). The realos – led by Mr. Fischer – eventually prevailed after making a strong case for electability over ideology. Hungry for actual power, Mr. Fischer trained his comrades to accept compromises and form coalitions. Then as now, the Greens’ preferred partners are the Social Democrats.
From 1998 to 2005, the two parties governed together, and the Greens had to make tough choices. In a break with their radical pacifism, they agreed to let the German army participate in the effort to pacify the Balkans. But on another issue, they stood firm. In 2003, America pushed Germany to support its plan to oust Saddam Hussein, alleging that the dictator was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. But Mr. Fischer, after looking at the intelligence presented by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, replied deadpan: “I’m not convinced.” Germany stayed out of that war.
Since then, however, the Greens in the federal parliament have languished in opposition. Worse, they have had to watch as the mainstream parties, above all the Christian Democrats led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, have co-opted some of their signature demands. In 2011, following the disaster at Fukushima, Ms. Merkel committed Germany to a gradual exit from nuclear power, one of the Greens’ rallying cries since 1980. Last month, a large majority of the Bundestag voted to allow gay marriage, another potent campaign issue for the Greens. Looking less distinct, the Greens nowadays often look rather blue.
They also lack charismatic personalities of the sort that Mr. Fischer used to be. Part of their tradition is to choose leaders in pairs: two each for the party and the parliamentary group, with one male and the other female, one realo and the other fundi. Complicating matters further, party members get to vote on leadership decisions in the name of radical democracy. The leading candidates for the upcoming election in September are Katrin Göring-Eckardt, who grew up in the former East Germany, and Cem Özdemir, a dual German-Turkish citizen. Neither inspires the base.
That base, moreover, is shrinking. Many of the Greens’ original supporters have aged and evolved from rebellious students to high-earning, middle-class intellectuals. As such, they look askance at recurring attempts by the fundis to take the Greens to the left, with ideas to tax wealth, for example. In this year’s election manifesto, the party is sticking to its ecological core. It wants to phase out coal, to abolish combustion engines in cars by 2030 and to end mass livestock farming. It is also the party most obsessed by digital privacy.
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But while many voters care about those issues, most are far more worried about other topics. Only 5 percent of Germans polled by YouGov view the party as competent in dealing with the refugee crisis, and only 1 percent see it as good in providing security. Indeed the Green’s traditional support of a multicultural society with open borders has run counter to the zeitgeist since 2015, when coverage of migrants committing sexual assaults and terrorist attacks has dominated the news. In the euro crisis, too, the Greens, with their instinct of more generously bailing out the southern countries, have failed to strike a chord with German voters.
At a regional level, the Greens are more successful. In the rich and conservative southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, they even lead a state government for the first time, under premier Winfried Kretschmann. Fiscally conservative and openly pro-business, this former chemistry teacher has won local hearts with his pragmatic approach. To more radical Greens in the north and east, he represents just the bane of conformism they decry.
Drifting aimlessly, the Greens will be lucky just to clear the 5-percent hurdle to get into the Bundestag in September. But if they do, they could still become a kingmaker in the complex coalition negotiations that will probably follow the election. Having outgrown their extremist roots, they could today team up with either the left parties or the center-right and pro-business camps. It’s not exactly a revolution, but it’s potential power nonetheless.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org