Fifty Shades of Green: How the German Green Party Established Itself in Mainstream Politics

Party Co-leader Cem Özdemir. Photo: Wikimedia commons.Who votes green? The environmental studies graduate? The management consultant? The housewife on the parish council? The medium-sized business owner? In Germany, it is currently all of these people and more. The German Green Party has risen in popularity among all groups of society over the past three years – a development that appears surprising considering the roots of party. When the party was founded in 1980, it was merely a niche for environmental rebels and was dismissed by former chancellor Helmut Schmidt as “environmental idiots who will have disappeared again soon“. Yet, thirty years later the party is still around and more successful than ever.

To understand the Green Party’s remarkable rise in popularity, one needs to consider the political events of the year 2011. That was the year, the Greens performed strongly in state elections throughout the country, winning seats in the parliaments of all 16 states. They tripled their share of votes in Germany’s most populous state North Rhine Westphalia and were voted into the parliament of Mecklenburg Western Pomerania for the first time in history. Above all, the Greens celebrated their biggest victory at the end of March, when they won the state election in southwestern Baden-Württemberg and installed the first Green state prime minister in Germany. The latter is particularly noteworthy because the Greens’ surprising success in one of Germany’s wealthiest states ended a six decade rule of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). What brought about this shift?

The nuclear disaster of Fukushima and its consequences only weeks before the election in Baden-Württemberg is of course the most readily available explanation for the Green Party’s record-high results. Admittedly, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel performed a turnaround on her government’s nuclear policy, she gave the anti-nuclear Greens exactly what they had been demanding since they were founded. The CDU’s agreement to a nuclear phase-out by 2022 instead of an extension of the lifespan of nuclear power plants gave strong momentum to the Greens’ anti-nuclear energy campaign.

The party logo. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

However, the Greens had been polling strong in Baden-Württemberg already months before the Fukushima disaster, due to the party’s outspoken opposition to Stuttgart 21, a multibillion-euro railway project. The project, which included cutting down hundreds of trees and tearing down parts of the old dead-end railway station, triggered mass protests in the state capital. In the fall of 2010, Stuttgart’s palace garden in the city center saw as many as 63.000 protesters. Protesters, who were happy to express their discontent with their present government by giving their vote to the political leaders of the demonstrations: The Greens.

Although these major events certainly helped the Greens gain astounding results, there have been other, quieter, developments that supported the “greening” of German state parliaments. German society is gravitating on the one hand towards the center-left and a lifestyle that centers around the  buzzwords “sustainability” and “ecologically friendly”, while on the other hand remaining deeply rooted in traditional conservatism. The Greens manage to cater to both sides of this diverse electorate. Tapping into the need for protection and preservation, they oppose highways and protest against the demolition of an old railway station, following a seemingly conservative agenda. Additionally, when the Green Party nominated Winfried Kretschmann to run for the office of prime minister in Baden-Württemberg, they picked a candidate who added a new facet to the party. As a 62-year old school teacher, and member of the local church choir, he has both feet firmly on the ground and radiates intellectual seriousness and reliability. He is a candidate who calms down hot tempered debates rather than adding fuel to the fire, as many expect from the Greens; a candidate who does not polarize, but gives credibility to the Greens’ approach to mainstream politics.

Winfried Kretschmann on election night. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Simultaneously, the Greens have managed to show that ecological sustainability can indeed translate into economic sustainability. “Economics and ecology don’t contradict each other,” said co-party-leader Claudia Roth. Cem Özdemir, the party’s other leader, identifies the clear impact of Green policy on industrial success: “In Germany, industry is now starting to thank us for pestering them in the past, because it forced them to go through the kind of innovations that the rest of the world is now catching up with. The Brits are still discussing whether they should insulate their houses better in the future, and we insulate them.” German entrepreneurs are ready to embed environmental technology into their businesses and for them, the Greens are no longer simply ideological dreamers, but politicians with a strong vision of new business opportunities. The Green Party has planted the idea of environmental technology as a business opportunity – an idea that is now starting to bare fruit for the economy and attract more voters to the party.

With the Greens entering mainstream politics and leaving behind the tree-hugger stereotype of the environmental rebel, there is little room at the top for the two big traditional German parties. The Greens are establishing themselves as a real alternative for lifelong supporters of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and CDU –  a trend that is likely to be confirmed at the national elections in September of this year. With polls showing between 15 – 17 % of total votes at the moment, the Greens could be facing their best result at a national election in history and are consolidating their rising popularity.

ANNA SCHOLZ