A Pale Shade of Green

The German Greens are on the brink of becoming the country’s second-largest party. But they're no friends of the working class.

Winfried Kretschmann, chairman of the Greens in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, talks at the party's national convention on November 20, 2010 in Freiburg, Germany. Thomas Niedermueller / Getty

The German Greens have been flying high in the polls in recent months. Now standing at 18 percent, support for the party has soared to its highest point since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Last Sunday the Greens more than doubled their vote share in the Bavarian state election, taking 17.5 percent. The party also looks set to come in second in the state of Hesse next weekend.

But the performance spike comes as somewhat of a surprise: the Greens netted a mediocre 8.5 percent in last year’s federal elections, almost unchanged from 2013. The party hasn’t veered much from its centrist path since its failed attempt to form a federal coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) following the 2017 general election — moves that disgruntled the Greens’ more radical youth wing. But if the party hasn’t changed, what else has?

The answer lies in the performance of Germany’s ruling parties, today joined in a grand coalition. Following multiple cabinet showdowns this summer, each of which brought the gears of government to a halt, discontented voters from all the ruling parties — the CDU/CSU and the social-democratic SPD — seem to be drifting toward the Greens. Just over two-fifths of the Green’s new supporters have migrated from the SPD and a quarter have wandered over from the CDU/CSU, according to a poll published in Die Welt newspaper.

The development spells bad news in particular for the once-mighty SPD. The old party of the German center-left has hit historic lows in opinion polls and has even been overtaken by the fiercely anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded in 2013. Against this backdrop, it might seem like a good thing for the floundering Left if CDU/CSU voters are shifting to the Greens. The reality is rather less promising.

What Does It Meant to be a Green?

The Greens can trace their roots to the 1968 student movement, which strove to shake off the political legacy of Nazi-era Germany. The party’s old guard was from a generation that took to the streets to tackle the conservative establishment with direct action. Once outsiders with an unwavering pro-environmental agenda, the radical spirit of the first wave of Greens has been chipped away since they first entered German parliament in 1983.

Where a critical stance towards capitalism and the ecological damage wreaked by profit-makers in industrialized societies once featured highly in the Greens’ manifesto, the party now offers centrist solutions palatable to German capital. At one point the Greens stopped saying “the system is broken” and started talking about “capitalism in service of the people.”

For example, the Greens still back the closure of all Germany’s brown coal energy plants. But nowadays they want the process to be done gradually (by 2030) in a “socially responsible” manner, without leaving swathes of people unemployed in coal-producing regions.

The party’s national leadership now fights a user-friendly, eco-lite corner. They want to see Germany switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, get more electric cars on the road, and move towards agriculture free from mass animal farming, pesticides, and GMOs.

And some faces in the Green Party have cast aside even these bolder policies in favor of “pragmatic” solutions designed to please business and achieve momentary electoral gains. One such case is Winfried Kretschmann, the Green state premier of wealthy Baden-Wuerttemberg, where car-builders such as Daimler have important bases. Contradicting the party’s line, Kretschmann is a loud voice against the Greens’ push to get diesel vehicles off the road.

“Ecology and economy, freedom and security, humanity and order. You have to keep on the middle path,” the conservative Green told radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Some prominent Greens have distanced themselves even further from the party’s humanist ideological roots, flirting with right-wing populist rhetoric. Take Boris Palmer, popular mayor of the city of Tübingen, also in Baden-Wuerttemberg, who regularly causes a stir with his calls to control asylum seekers arriving in Germany more closely and for the rapid deportation of those who run afoul of the law.

“No one can expect any society to permanently put up with regular knife attacks, rape and terrorist attacks, because they offered help to [people fleeing war],” Palmer wrote in a Facebook post after a refugee took a woman hostage in Cologne’s main train station.

A New Volkspartei?

While the party’s remaining hardcore eco-warriors may despair over its swing to the right, the formula has worked electorally. The Greens were in federal government coalition with the SPD between 1998 and 2005, taking up ministerial positions. Currently the party features in half of Germany’s state government coalitions, and even holds the state premiership in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where it rules in coalition with the CDU.

More recently, the Greens have set their sights on becoming a Volkspartei, a big-tent party attracting voters from different sections of society. Traditionally, their voter base has been somewhat elitist: highly educated, largely western German, urban and middle class.

To broaden their appeal, the Greens are taking on issues beyond their classic ecological remit to court working-class Germans. In practical terms, this means targeting wavering SPD voters who feel threatened by the changes from globalization.

The Greens now want to govern with a broad moral compass “with consideration for the interests of those who have difficulties with change. With understanding for the way that fishermen, farmers, agriculturalists struggle with Green ideas — for understandable reasons,” Robert Habeck, one of the party’s two leaders, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in March.

Is the Future Green?

For many on the Left, the Greens’ rise is a welcome tonic to the successes of the AfD, which has upended the SPD as Germany’s second-largest party in recent months. At present, surveys have the Greens, the AfD, and the SPD roughly neck and neck in second place.

The Greens’ newfound strength may well help counterbalance the AfD. But can the party solve the woes of the German left? This seems unlikely.

First, half of the Greens’ freshly acquired supporters come from the SPD and the socialist party Die Linke, meaning the development is in large part a reshuffling of leftist votes rather than a realignment to the Left en masse. At the moment, the party seems to be a much greater threat to the SPD and the Christian Democrats than to anyone else.

Second and more importantly, the rise of the Greens does not provide answers to a more fundamental question: how can poorer, rural voters — particularly in former East Germany — who have wandered away from the left-wing parties and over to the AfD be won back?

The SPD lost 470,000 voters to the AfD in the last election, and Die Linke 400,000, according to Die Welt. And that’s not to mention the more than 1 million voters lost by the CDU/CSU. The hemorrhaging has continued in the past year. Any party looking to become a truly hegemonic force must have a solid strategy to regain this lost ground, yet Forsa’s poll of 3,000 people found not a single new Green convert from the AfD.

If the Greens are indeed attempting to branch out beyond their familiar eco-politics and reach a new base, there are as yet few signs of success.