The Rise of the German Greens- The left can learn from their success

While most of the headlines in German politics have recently been made by the decision of Chancellor Angela Merkel not to seek re-election in 2021 and the continued rise of the far right AFD (Alternative for Germany) the increased popularity of the German Greens has almost gone unnoticed, at least in the UK.

At the Bavarian State election last month the narrative was about the heavy losses suffered by the CSU(the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Bavaria) along with the 22 seats gained by the AFD. However, it was the German Green Party that stormed into second place gaining a 9% swing, higher than that of any of the other parties except for the AFD whilst also gaining 20 seats.

It was a similar story at the State election Hesse on October 28th where Merkel’s CDU lost 7 seats, on a -11.3% swing while the Greens replaced the SPD( Social Democrats) as the second largest party (in terms of seats) with a swing of 8.7% gaining 16 seats. So why are the Greens doing so well and who exactly are they?

In fact the current German Green Party is a 1993 merger of two separate parties with different traditions (not unlike the Liberal Democrats in the UK) the original West German Green Party Die Grünen and Alliance 90 a group of non-Communist parties in the former East German who formed part of the democratic opposition in the Volkskammer the East German Parliament. Therefore in many ways the Greens are the epitome of a united German political party in contrast to the CDU and SDP who are more associated with West Germany and Die Linke(the left) who have are the successor the Socialist Unity Party that governed the GDR.

Following the merger with Alliance 90 that was largely motivated by a desire to meet the 5% threshold for Parliamentary representation in the post-unification Bundestag[1], it was in the Red-Green coalition with the SDP where the Greens made an impact.  Indeed following the 1998 Federal election despite a slight fall in their percentage of the vote won 47 seats. Although the Greens had three cabinet ministers in the coalition headed by SPD Chancellor Gerthart Schroder there was almost instant discord over German participant in the 1998 war in Kosovo (the first postwar deployment of German troops abroad).  

Indeed the Greens developed a reputation for principled competence in government and at the 2002 Federal election they increased their representation to 55 seats and in 2005 they only had small losses by the heavy losses suffered by the SPD forced them out of government with CDU leader Angela Merkel becoming Chancellor.

However, after several years in the doldrums they are back not just in terms of the recent election results but the Greens also have a strong record in local government more generally. Currently the Greens are in government in the following State Parliaments Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia. They are also in opposition in Bavaria, Brandenburg, Lower Saxony , North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony. In some of these Landers (as the German states are known), they are in government with their traditional allies the SPD, and even Die Linke but in others they have formed coalitions with the CDU and the free market FDP.

So, why are the Greens doing so well at the moment? One argument is that the Greens are no longer the party of pacifist hippies but now well- educated urban professionals in other words at least for a certain section of the population they have gone mainstream.

According to research by the London School of Economics, the SPD has been in long-term decline struggling to reconcile their traditional working class support base and young metropolitan liberal pro-European voters who are increasingly gravitating towards the Greens. Arguably the Greens have also become home for moderate centrist supporters of the CDU and CSU dismayed by those parties move to the right. Internally the Greens have been dominated by power-sharing arrangements between the left wing base and centrist pragmatists known as ‘realos’. According to this argument, it is the ‘realos’ who are currently in the ascendency, therefore, helping the parties’ electoral prospects.

However another analysis is that the Greens are doing well as they offer a clear coherent alternative to the far right AFD with a pro-European, tolerant approach to migration along with an acceptance of the challenges of climate change. It isn’t only in Germany where the Greens are doing well in elections. In  Belgium the Greens polled over 30% while in Luxembourg they increased their tally of MPs by 50%.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that the Greens have benefited from the implosion of the SPD since 2005 following a pattern of struggling Social Democratic parties that has affected much of Europe in recent years. As in the UK and USA commentators have also argued that the key contemporary political juxtaposition is no longer the left-right divide but rather open or closed. Clearly, the Greens with their pro-immigration and pro-European stance are ‘open’ compared to the ‘closed’ nature of the AFD.

It remains to be seen of course if the Greens can maintain their success in the increasingly unstable German political scene with the centre-left collapsing, far right growing and Angela Merkel’s Chancellorship coming to an increasingly disorderly end.


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