Amid the collapse of Germany’s centre left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s embattled centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) much has been written about the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland and its ties to neo-Nazism. However a much less heralded winner of Germany’s political turmoil has been the country’s Green Party.
What explains the party’s surprising success? Unlike its British sibling, Germany’s Greens have taken a centrist, business-friendly path, which saw them come second in the state elections in Hesse and Bavaria last month and sees them co-governing ten of Germany’s 16 states. Remarkably, a recent national poll by Forsa had the party in a clear second place at 24 per cent, nearly double the SDP and AfD — both on 13 per cent — and only 3 per cent off the CDU.
Formed in 1980, the German Green Party began life on the more radical left. It secured its first member of Parliament in 1985 when Joschka Fischer was famously sworn in as environment minister in the State of Hesse wearing a pair of white Nike trainers. He went on to become Germany’s foreign minister and deputy chancellor in 1998, during which he persuaded his party to back German intervention in Kosovo. He judged US claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to be unconvincing and kept Germany out of the Iraq War in 2003.
Over the years, the party has shifted to the centre, with its youthful co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock both coming from the Greens’ pragmatic Realpolitik wing. In an interview with newspaper Die Zeit, Habeck said: “I do not understand ourselves as left in the sense of the Left Party,” referring to Germany’s socialists, Die Linke.
Other senior party figures also hold positions quite distant from the Greens’ anti-capitalist past. Tarek Al-Wazir, the Hessian deputy prime minister, supported the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) while Winfried Kretschmann, who has been premier of Baden-Württemberg since 2011, describes himself as a green conservative. The openly pro-business Kretschmann faced down rainforest campaigners protesting against his opening of a new research and development centre built by chainsaw manufacturer Stihl: “Innovation and industry are as much a part of this region as nature,” he said.
A climate change advocate, patriotic fiscal conservative and avowed Catholic, Kretschmann, is a sporting rifle club member who regularly tops polls for Germany’s favourite politician. He is not one to blindly follow political creeds for the sake of them. Asked if his pragmatism betrayed the Green Party’s founding principles he replied: “Dogmas are like streetlights in the dark. They give light and orientation, but only a drunk clings on to them.”
The centrist Greens have made themselves the liberal, optimistic and open counterweight to the nativist, anti-foreigner, AfD. While the other mainstream parties have equivocated over their stance on refugees, the Greens have been unapologetically pro-immigration, which is reflected in them having more candidates born outside Germany than their centre-right and centre-left rivals. Dr Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin said: “They have managed to bring various green issues together; climate change, air quality and transportation, and promote it as an answer to making the lives of Germans better.”
As well as refugees, the party has broadened its policy offering beyond traditional green issues, promoting the digitisation of agriculture, addressing the lack of affordable housing and bolstering police and intelligence agencies following terror attacks in the country. As many policies that were first proposed by the Greens have now become mainstream — Germany has the highest recycling rate in the world — it has garnered the trust of voters to the point where it could end up returning to government should its strong polling performance continue into the 2021 general election.
Klaus Veigel, co-head of a large quarrying company in Kretschmann’s Baden-Württemberg, told business newspaper Handelsblatt that he favoured a coalition between the Greens and the CDU: “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.”