In 1970 on Sesame Street, Kermit the Frog famously sang that “it’s not easy bein’ green.” It certainly applies to the Green Party after the September 22 German federal elections. Despite hoping to attain significantly more than the last election’s 10.7 percent, the Greens actually lost 2.3 percent of the votes. Undergoing a complete change of party leadership and amid a fundamental debate about the party’s future direction, the weakened Greens are neither in a strategically benign position to conduct talks with Angela Merkel’s winning Christian Democrats nor are they incapable of entering a coalition. Although a renewed grand coalition is much more probable than a Black-Green coalition, it is a fundamental electoral threat for the Green Party to not seriously consider entering Germany’s next government.
The Green Party’s frustration with the election result stems from their high hopes for the outcome. They performed terrifically in opinion polls and had formidable electoral successes at the regional level: Baden-Wuerttemberg saw Germany’s first green prime minister in 2011. More generally, they even exerted a discursive hegemony. A “Green” way of thinking about politics and lifestyle used to be hip. When Angela Merkel decided to abandon nuclear energy just a few days after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, she gave in to a Zeitgeist significantly shaped by this Green thinking. With the Energiewende, Merkel’s government adopted a policy stance that used to be associated with the Greens. Merkel would have had a much tougher time in this electoral campaign if she had insisted on nuclear power. But with Merkel’s current stance, the Greens have been denied one of their core issues.
The Energiewende discussion is an ambivalent victory for the Greens. In the electoral campaign, the Greens encountered outright discursive defeats. Claiming the necessity of increasing taxes, they could not define and win the political middle. For example, the Green Party’s platform included a proposal for “Veggie-Day,” a day without meals containing meat in public cafeterias, which became a symbol for a perceived Green sense of superiority and pushiness to interfere with everyday habits. They encountered a massive negative backlash when their political opponents dug up old party declarations from the 1980s in which a pedophile group that infiltrated the party at that time advocated for the legalization of adult sexual acts on children. These declarations were condemned by the party leadership, who initiated an investigation. In this electoral campaign, the Greens have lost much of their attractiveness. They still need to come to terms with that.
But the Greens do not have time for a lengthy period of self-inspection: Angela Merkel is looking for a coalition partner. The Social Democrats have prepared themselves for negotiations, although reluctantly because of their electoral defeat after the last grand coalition. Yet, if a grand coalition successfully implements the Energiewende—even if not in a perfectly Green fashion—then one of the Greens’ most important political projects will have been implemented without their involvement. It will not be the Green Party’s political personnel that will have the state-of-the-art technical knowledge in a highly complex policy matter, but the incumbent ministers and their staffers. This cannot be a promising perspective for the Green Party if it wants to reclaim the conversation. The Greens still have a realistic chance to enter the coalition, and the Christian Democrats might prefer it to a grand coalition. It would be in the Green Party’s strategic interest to use that opportunity.
The Greens suffered a setback, and they are struggling with this. But, their responsibility for an ecological modernization in Germany remains. The next government will make decisions on the Energiewende that will be relevant for decades. These days, it isn’t easy bein’ green.