Bundestag Elections 2021

Julia Berghofer

European Leadership Network

Julia Berghofer is a Policy Fellow with the European Leadership Network (ELN), where she coordinates the Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN). Her research area includes nuclear arms control and European defence & security. Previously, she held positions with Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the Munich Security Conference. Julia holds a B.A. in Political and Communication Sciences from LMU Munich and an M.A. in Political Sciences from the University of Hamburg. She is a member of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung’s Forum Neue Sicherheitspolitik, vice-chair of the YGLN, and an alumni of the Réseau nucléaire et stratégie – nouvelle génération.

No Government Without the Greens?

After a sobering result in the 2017 elections, the current rise of the Green Party gives reason to expect government participation in 2021. The former anti-party party is performing better than it has ever done since its foundation in 1980, and a coalition with the Conservatives is a likely scenario for next year. In a government with the Social Democrats and the Left Party, Germany could even get its first Green chancellor.

The recent ascension of the Greens

The Greens have seen an unprecedented upswing in voter support since 2018. According to the polls, they even superseded the CDU/CSU for a brief period in summer 2019 and are now performing between 20 and 23 percent, thus relegating the SPD to third place.

The recent success of the Ökopartei (eco-party) is undeniably a result of their transformation from a radical ecologist party that had its roots in the environmentalist and anti-establishment movements of the 1970s and 80s to a party that attracts well-educated, urban high-earners who care for the environment and buy their lunch at organic food stores. At the expense of their rebel image, the Greens became bourgeois, even though politicians like the co-leader of the Greens Robert Habeck point out that the party does not pursue a  Milieupolitik approach and has widened their radius over the past years, even to rural areas. Juergen Trittin, another prominent Green face, explained recently: “the Greens have moved towards the center, but the center has also shifted towards the Greens.” Consequently, the Green flagship topic of global warming has entered the mainstream debate while at the same time their proposed actions to counter climate change have become less polarizing, which secures them the support of eco-friendly, non-radical voters.

This approach enabled the Greens to fill the void created by the steady erosion of the traditional Volkspartei SPD. During the past legislative term, the SPD has been fatigued in another GroKo. Currently lacking an appealing agenda, the party’s co-leadership of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans looks strikingly pale as opposed to the dynamic duo of Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Also, decisive action during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the CDU/CSU leadership to stand out, while it was a chance missed by SPD personnel.

Will the Greens keep this level of support?

The short answer to this important question is almost certainly. But anyone who remembers the hyped debate surrounding the “veggie day” in 2013, as well as the rapid decline in early 2017, knows why, despite their current excellent performance, the party might still be looking nervously towards fall 2021. But unlike in previous election cycles, there is no reason for real concern.

From the past two elections, we know that at least two key factors play a decisive role regarding the Greens’ performance. One of them is whether the SPD is ranking high in voter support; the second is how the Green image is being perceived in the public discourse in the year ahead of the elections.

Before the 2013 elections, a toxic combination of issues damaged the Green campaign. The “veggie day” was complemented by a debate around pedophile groups in the party’s founding years. Additionally, calls for tax increases for the wealthier frightened off voters. But a similar combination of detrimental factors is hardly imaginable for 2021. Especially, apart from the far-right, no one can legitimately call the Greens an “eco-dictatorship” party anymore.

In contrast, the problem for the Greens in 2017 mainly stemmed from a stark voter sympathy for Martin Schulz who in a surprise move replaced Sigmar Gabriel as the new chancellor candidate of the SPD in January 2017. While according to the pollsters the SPD rose to 30-31%, the Greens in early 2017 dropped to 7-8%. Certainly not the only reason, the Schulz-Zug (Schulz train) was a nail in the coffin of the Greens in this election. However, since then the Greens have installed Habeck and Baerbock as co-leaders of the party and both are ranking high in voter sympathy.

Adding to this, global warming as the Greens’ core issue has only temporarily lost a bit of attention with the pandemic absorbing important political debates. It will regain attention with the next heatwave, wildfires, and droughts, which will certainly come.

The “2K” question: Kanzler and Koalition

Unless dramatic changes occur, there will be no coalition without the Greens, especially as the appetite in the SPD for another GroKo is low (but not impossible). A Green-SPD-Left alliance (Red-Red-Green, “R2G”) or a Black-Green coalition are the most likely scenarios. Of these two, R2G would be a more comfortable option for all involved, provided the SPD and Left Party perform at a reasonable level. On the other hand, a Black-Green coalition is not without precedents on the level of the Länder. Indeed, several factors make cooperation with the Conservatives an attractive option for the Greens.

First, by clearing the magic hurdle of forming a federal government with the CDU/CSU, the Greens would generally ease their stance as a conceivable coalition partner on a federal and Länder level for most other parties on the political spectrum. Second, parts of the Green leadership have an appetite to “modernize” the Conservatives while being in a government with them, as a prominent politician put it in a personal conversation recently. Black-Green could be seen as a chance to turn politics in Germany more broadly in a more sustainable direction. In a traditional sense, preserving the environment is a key aspect of conservative thinking. While the CDU/CSU have not upheld this commitment, it is conceivable that the Greens could push the conservatives back in this direction.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic could also be an opportunity for the Green Party to bring in a new dynamic to Germany’s struggling energy transition. Although a bit counter-intuitive, on a global scale renewable markets have proven more resilient throughout the crisis than expected. Mr. Habeck recently expressed an interest in a Green-led finance ministry should they become part of the government. Over the next ten years, the Green Party reportedly wants to adopt a EUR 500 billion package to significantly enhance investments in infrastructure, energy transition, and an ecological reshaping of the economy.

Their proposed financial program could become even more expensive should they want to stick to their other plans including a replacement of the Hartz IV unemployment benefits and a basic pension, amongst other things. This would certainly require a raising of the country’s strict debt brake limits. It could play out favorably for the Greens that, driven by the pandemic’s harmful effects on the economy, the finance minister is already considering a temporary suspension of the federal deficit ceiling of no more than 0.35 percent of the economic output. As a side-effect, this could potentially lower the barrier for future negotiations on shifting the debt brake. However, this will be very controversial with the CDU/CSU.

R2G, on the other hand, is likely to be the only scenario in which Germany could get its first Green chancellor. Leading party politicians, meanwhile, are very hesitant to assess the odds of a Green chancellorship and who might be chancellor candidate. As for now, the party will begin 2021 with their present leadership duo of Baerbock and Habeck. There will be no public decision in terms of a Green candidate before spring, and this decision will be highly dependent on the polls. Still, we will have a clearer idea of the party’s guiding lines for the election campaign before the end of the year, as the Greens will adopt a new party platform on November 20, 2020.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.