On Friday, Winfried Kretschmann cut the ribbon on a new research and development center built by the chainsaw manufacturer Stihl, located in Waiblingen, a town near Stuttgart in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg.
Outside, 50 demonstrators protested about the destruction of the rain forests. Inside, Mr. Kretschmann, who in 2011 became Germany’s first Green Party state premier, heading a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, praised Stihl’s €90 million, or $100 million, investment, the company’s efforts to reduce emissions, and their new generation of battery-powered chainsaws.
The premier dismissed the rain forest protests as nonsense. You can’t stop making knives just because they can kill people, he said. “Innovation and industry are as much a part of this region as nature,” he added, making an unmistakable gesture of friendship to business ahead of state elections this coming Sunday.
The 67-year-old Mr. Kretschmann is one of the big recent success stories of German politics. In the prosperous southwestern state, which borders Switzerland and France, the Green Party could be about to overtake the center-right Christian Democrats as the largest overall party. Before 2011, the state was the heartland for the conservatives, with the party ruling here continuously for almost 60 years.
Now polls have the two parties neck-and-neck on around 30 percent of the vote. The big losers are Mr. Kretschmann’s junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, whose support has fallen to historic lows of below 20 percent.
“Innovation and industry are as much a part of this region as nature.”
Observers are keenly watching developments in Baden-Württemberg. The third largest state in Germany with a population of around 10 million, it is a center of high-tech – and environmentally friendly – industry. Home to Mercedes, SAP, Porsche and Bosch, it also boasts hundreds of mid-size industrial companies, which form the foundation of the local economy.
And in recent years, the state’s Green Party has turned into something very different to the leftish, hippyish party that first emerged nearly four decades ago. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens are now a party of government, and proving remarkably amenable to local business. Speculation is growing about a coalition between the Greens and the Christian Democrats, both in Baden-Württemberg, and even on a national level after the 2017 federal elections.
Mr. Kretschmann’s speech at Stihl earned warm applause from his audience, which included executives from many mid-size industrial companies. “The reception for Mr. Kretschmann was absolutely genuine,” said Renate Pilz, CEO of Pilz International, a global leader in safe automation technology. Others in attendance included Hartmut Jenner, the head of Kärcher, an important manufacturer of pressure-cleaning technology, and Andreas Lapp, CEO of the Lapp Group, which manufactures power cables.
Increased support among the business community has been a decisive factor in Mr. Kretschmann’s extraordinary popularity. Just a week before the election, he enjoys a remarkable 71 percent approval rating, with majority approval even among Christian Democratic voters. The Christian Democrats were the main governing party in Baden-Württemberg almost continuously from 1952 to 2011.
Mr. Kretschmann is also going against the national trend. The Green Party has struggled in recent years, particulary since Mrs. Merkel effectively stole one of their core policies of campaigning against nuclear power. In 2011, she announced that Germany was to shut down its nuclear power plants after the accident at the Fukishima reactor.
In municipal elections in the state of Hesse this weekend, the Greens were one of the big losers, being pushed into fourth place by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party. The Greens recorded a drop to 11.6 percent from 18.3 percent, losing its third-place position to the AfD, which scored 13.2 percent, according to data from Hesse’s State Statistics Office released on Monday.
Yet in Baden-Württemberg, the Greens are polling significantly above the national level of around 10 percent, largely thanks to the popular state premier.
Mr. Kretschmann owes his success to a number of factors, including his gruff, grandfatherly manner, his rebellious attitude towards the federal Green party, and his backing for Angela Merkel on refugees. But his support for industry has also been crucial, in a state where the economy is heavily reliant on smaller high-tech companies, as well as its famous industrial giants.
It wasn’t always like this. Before going into government, Mr. Kretschmann had a reputation for hostility to business. After the 2011 election, he raised hackles by saying “fewer cars are of course better than more.” Not a comment to win over local car manufacturers, and the CEO of Porsche demanded – and got – an urgent meeting with the state premier. On Mr. Kretschmann’s first overseas trip, to South America, accompanying executives were alienated by what they saw as his lack of attention to their concerns.
A lot has changed in five years. Today, Mr. Kretschmann sells the Greens as the natural partner for local high-tech business. They are the “Party for the Economy 4.0,” according to their new slogan. One key point: Mr. Kretschmann has welcomed the TTIP, the proposed trade deal between the United States and the European Union, hated by many on the German left and within the wider Green Party.
The new Mr. Kretschmann never misses a chance to praise local mid-sized industrial firms, calling them “our ‘economic champions,’ hidden in every Black Forest valley.” He hails their vitality and creativity: “Every time I visit these innovative companies, I feel energized and enthusiastic.” He has even changed his tune on cars: “It all depends what kind of cars we build, how we develop environmentally friendly, intelligent mobility,” he said.
Digitization is another favorite topic. On this, Mr. Kretschmann gets good marks from Ulrich Dietz, CEO of fintech company GFT. He said the Greens’ “learning curve has been steep. Since his visits to the United States, Kretschmann has really recognized the importance of thorough digitization.”
After five years in power, the Greens are undoubtedly winning over some traditional Christian Democrat supporters. Wolfgang Grupp, CEO of Trigema, an apparel manufacturer with around 1,000 employees, told the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche that he would be voting Green for the first time. He was “traditionally a Christian Democrat voter,” he said, but thought “the Greens had done very well for the state.”
“The Greens have a great deal of competence and openness to dialogue. They’re competent, it’s that simple.”
The economic situation in Baden-Württemberg has helped: the Green-led coalition has presided over a period of steady economic growth. Employment levels, already strong by German standards, have also risen.
Not everyone is impressed. Roland Mack, founder of the leisure park Europa Park, complained to Handelsblatt that the government has failed to develop road and rail infrastructure. Others echo this, saying the state government foolishly failed to attract available federal infrastructure funds. Speaking to Handelsblatt, Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller, chair of machine tool manufacturer Trumpf, criticized the education reforms of the Green-SPD coalition, saying they have failed to take the needs of business into account.
Tellingly, business criticism of the Green-led government tends to be directed at their left-wing coalition partners. Rainer Dulger, head of the Baden-Württemberg employer’s federation, said he gave Mr. Kretschmann’s government a “C+” grade, but emphasized that his criticism was aimed at the Social Democrats. “On regulatory questions, the entire SPD program goes against employers’ interests,” he said. Another member of the federation was blunter: “Everything the coalition did that angered us came from the Social Democrats,” he said, mentioning that party’s measures on wages, education and minority integration.
One key indicator of a shift is in party donations. In 2015, Südwestmetall, the Baden-Württemberg Employers’ Association of the Metal and Electrical Industry, gave an unprecedented €110,000 to the Green Party. Admittedly, their top donation of €150,000 went to the Christian Democrats, but they gave more to the Greens than to either the pro-business Free Democratic Party, who got €100,000, or the Social Democrats, who received a mere €60,000. Jochen Wermuth, a prominent Berlin-based financial advisor who specializes in sustainable investment, gave €300,000 to the Baden-Württemberg Greens, the largest individual donation in the party’s history.
Mr. Kretschmann says his government “gives everyone a hearing, even if we don’t grant everyone’s wishes.” Observers in the business community say this is not empty talk. “The Greens have a great deal of competence and openness to dialogue,” said one Stuttgart businessman. He still felt closest to the FDP, he said, “but after that, the Greens, much more than the others. They’re competent, it’s that simple.”
Some in the business community say they favor a coalition between Greens and Christian Democrats. “The CDU should have done it ages ago,” said Klaus Veigel, co-head of a large quarrying company in Vaihingen, near Stuttgart. “The Greens used to be the bogeyman. But now we’ve got to know them, it’s easy to imagine a coalition. And not just here in Baden-Württemberg. It should happen federally too.”
Barbara Gillmann has covered politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin since 2002, focusing on topics including education, research, family policy, demographic development and the Green party. Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt’s Baden-Württemberg correspondent. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.