The 2019 European election saw the German Green Party knock the centre-left heavyweight SPD out of second place, placing them just behind Angela Merkel’s CDU. In a recent national opinion poll they even came out on top, a historic success for a party which long stood in the shadow of Germany’s two-party monopoly. Many now ask whether this the final nail in the coffin for German politics as usual, but what’s more is whether they really have what it takes to become a new “people’s party”.
Germany’s two “Volksparteien”, governing in a grand coalition since 2013, are plagued by an identity crisis. On the political centre-left, the SPD has slowly transformed from the principled and undisputed voice of the working class into the centre-right’s ally. The recent resignation of Andrea Nahles, the party’s 10th leader in 15 years, symbolises the SPD’s lack of leadership and the inevitable blurring of lines between the two formerly opposing powers. On the centre-right meanwhile, the CDU have struggled to handle Angela Merkel’s Götterdämmerung. The party’s new leader, Merkel’s ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, bound to struggle to fill her predecessor’s footsteps from the outset, certainly had a rocky start. Divided to its core, the CDU has failed to unite behind a clear and moderate vision for the country, leaving its future more than uncertain.
Meanwhile, the Green Party captures the zeitgeist of Germany’s progressive class. As ‘Fridays for Future’ continues to gain momentum and a growing number of cities are declaring climate emergencies, eco-activism has conquered the political mainstream. A recent opinion poll found that climate and environmental concerns constituted the most pressing concern for German voters at the 2019 European elections, thwarting other issues such as immigration and welfare. The results certainly speak for themselves. A third of voters under 30 voted Green. Above all, the result is a wake-up call for future-proof decisions.
Unlike its European namesakes, however, the German Greens are far from being a single-issue party. Leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, both members of the party’s moderate “Realo” wing, have once and for all abandoned the far-left stereotype that plagues Green parties in other countries. Green policies remaining at the helm of its political identity, the party has left behind its left-wing ideals, leaning towards a certain realist economic pragmatism. In contrast to the vocal activism of Greenpeace and others, The Green Party increasingly seeks political dialogue with industry leaders. The ”Wirtschaftsbeirat”, an economic advisory committee founded by Green MPs leads an active discourse with industry giants such as Bosch, Thyssen-Krupp and Lufthansa. Green politics has arrived in Germany’s long-term development strategy and the Green Party will likely play a key role in its implementation.
Most noticeably, however, the Green Party has arisen as the primary opposition to Germany’s flirtation with right-wing populism. The unprecedented success of nativist, anti-migration ideology took the country by storm during the 2015 refugee crisis, stoking support for the far-right AfD amongst Germany’s forgotten working class. Whilst the governing parties were occupied with their internal turmoil, the Green Party countered the AfD, presenting itself as the image of liberal, pro-European and pro-migration politics, representing the polar-opposite to isolationist ideals across the country.
This strength, nonetheless, may be the Green Party’s most poignant weakness. Despite gathering votes amongst the urban progressive middle-class, the Greens have struggled to grab hold of Germany’s rural areas, particularly in the country’s Eastern regions. The AfD, meanwhile, seemingly flourishes in precisely those areas, topping the polls in Saxony along with the CDU. With regional elections looming, the AfD’s prospects certainly appear promising. Germany is hopelessly divided. The Green Party, therefore, must strike a considered, conciliatory tone.
Crucially, Habeck and Baerbock’s party has demonstrated its ability to govern. Successive federal coalition partners between 1998 and 2005, the Greens are more than an opposition party. Currently in government across five states, they have proven to be a serious contender for power. The experience, the momentum and the political will are certainly there. To truly succeed, however, the Green Party not only requires economic realism, but coherent social policy in order to convince those outside of its progressive urban core. Who will pay for the green transition? How will job losses be compensated? If they do so, they may finally achieve the status of a “People’s Party”, once and for all replacing the SPD in the political centre. Green may well become the new red.