The Greens: The Reliability Test
It’s two months before the German election on September 24, and the Green Party is struggling to gain traction. Recent polls project single-digit support, with few indications of improvement. Not too long ago, speculation about a government led by Angela Merkel with the Green Party as a coalition partner was not unusual. That option seems less likely now, particularly with an apparent resurgence of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). And a remake of a coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens is probably out of reach given the low polling figures of both parties at this point. Of course, that could change. While anything can happen in today’s volatile political environment, the Greens appear to be facing another legislative term in the opposition seats in Berlin.
However, the Greens are stronger than they look at the national level—a trend that has been particularly observable in the past decade. Today the Greens are represented in the parliaments of fourteen states and in governing coalitions in ten state governments. Baden-Württemberg has a popular Green minister-president. The Greens have also shown flexibility in political coalitions, aligning with both the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD in state and local governments. That has a lot to do with the decentralized and divergent nature of political issues—voters in Schleswig-Holstein have different concerns than those in Bavaria—but it also has to do with the competencies of states (Länder) versus the federal government. Green Party candidates may find greater resonance at different levels of government. Still, in the past three national elections, the Greens have not been as successful as they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they helped the SPD win twice and joined it in the governing coalition for seven years.
First emerging in 1980 as a party primarily focused on environmental issues, the Green Party’s agenda has widened to include a spectrum of domestic issues and foreign policy positions. Under the leadership of then foreign minister Joschka Fischer, the Greens broke with a pacifist position and were supportive of German intervention in the Balkan wars. More than a decade later, the Greens have taken tough positions against the Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine. However, there remains a good deal of intra-party frictions over policy directions.
In some ways, the Greens have seen some their primary agenda adopted by the two larger political parties who have devoted more attention to environmental issues as well as other social topics, such as same sex marriage, education, support for family policies, and, more recently, refugee issues. That has left the Greens challenged to redefine the party profile in a political arena in which party affiliation is less coherent and reliable among voters than it was in previous decades.
As of now, the Greens are dangerously close to the 5 percent hurdle they pass to stay represented in the Bundestag. Recent state elections do not all bode well. On the one hand, the Greens were unable to stay in the state parliament of Saarland in its most recent election. They also lost their coalition with the Social Democrats in Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia. On the other, they did better in Schleswig-Holstein and are now part of a three-way coalition in Kiel with the CDU and the FDP. While such a coalition may be a less likely outcome on September 24, it does pose a precedent that could work nationally. To do so, the Green Party, which has always been an internally fractious party, will have to secure the support of its base.
While the chancellor might prefer a coalition with only the FDP, a coalition also including the Greens might conceivably be attractive to cover a larger number of agenda items. One of them is going to have to be the sustainability of the European project and on that issue, it is possible that consensus could be forged. Another might be the further evolution of the so-called Energiewende toward more renewable energy sources. And a third might be the continuing effort to forge a strategic approach to Germany’s global responsibilities.
Should Merkel lose her current lead in the polls, another scenario might be a coalition of SPD/FDP/the Greens. But combining those choices together would be a combustible mixture. One very knotty problem connected with all of those scenarios is the distribution of federal ministries within such combinations. That would be extremely complicated in the competition for power.
The two leading candidates of the Greens—Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt—are experienced politicians. They are both seen as centrists within the party ranks and able to reach out to multiple constituencies. Both aim to reach a high enough level in the elections to have the cards to negotiate a coalition, be it with Merkel or in a larger arrangement with the CDU/CSU and the FDP. Göring-Eckhardt grew up in East Germany and might be able to strengthen the base in that region. Özdemir is the son of an immigrant family and exemplifies the changing fabric of German society. He also has the skills to handle foreign policy agendas. But both need to appeal to a larger set of voters to bring the party back into government.
The Greens have been out of governing power in Berlin for twelve years. The leadership wants another opportunity. The shifting sands of the political arena could make it possible. But the party has to make clear to voters why it can help deliver what many voters want: reliability. Merkel has been able to take advantage of that need so far. If they are going to be players again, the Greens need to figure out how they can convey that same message.