German Green Party Meets Values Shock

With elections in September and low polls for Helmut Kohl, environmentalists may have blown a chance for more power.

The Green Party - once renowned as the avant-garde of Germany's environmental movement - faces perhaps its most serious crisis at a most inopportune time.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl trails in opinion polls for the Sept. 27 national elections, and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) hopes to end his 16-year reign in Bonn. The Greens may well be at the SPD's side - if they don't do themselves in.

But the Greens have a great deal to worry about. They are haunted by their proposal to hike the gasoline tax as part of an energy-conservation/revenue-raising proposal. Even though they dropped the hike, such proposals have chiseled away at the party's electoral base in a year when economic concerns have taken center stage.

Fissures appear within the party itself. Deep rifts over foreign policy were exposed when its delegates failed to endorse a compromise allowing continued German participation in the UN's Bosnia peacekeeping operation. The episode raised doubts about the Greens' credibility to govern in a country of Germany's stature.

Two weeks after the party endorsed the tax-hike proposal at its national convention in early March, the Greens suffered a serious setback. In local elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, their vote share dropped to 6.8 percent, down from 10.3 percent in 1994.

After a similar backlash in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt in April, the Greens yanked the gas-price hike from their platform in May.

Green Party leader Joschka Fischer, mentioned as a possible foreign minister in a Green-SPD coalition, lamented that the proposal caused "enormous political problems" and was "the wrong symbol for the right thing."

Other Green ideas have met with similar disapproval. A proposal for speed limits on the autobahn, for example, has found few supporters.

Such opposition may be symptomatic of a deeper shift among the German population.

"The problem [for the Greens] is a change of values in German society," says Ulrich von Alemann, an expert on political parties at the University of Dsseldorf.

In the 1980s, "the Greens emerged as the winners from a value change toward more post-materialistic and ecological values," he says. But in the 1990s, environmental policies have been coopted, albeit to a lesser extent, by the mainstream parties.

Voters are also concerned about such economic problems as the 10.7 percent unemployment rate - which is currently at 17.4 percent in struggling eastern Germany - according to the Federal Labor Office.

What does all of this mean for the September elections?

The SPD has been watching the Greens with interest - and sometimes horror. A recent Allensbach Institute poll showed their candidate for chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, with 43.8 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for Mr. Kohl.

But if the SPD emerges victorious in September, it would most likely need to govern in a coalition with smaller parties. Some SPD officials worry the Greens' recent misfires could hurt their election chances.

Chancellor Kohl is exploiting the opportunity, charging that an SPD-Greens coalition will leave the country at the mercy of irresponsible leftists.

"It is clear that the Kohl campaign's attacks against the Greens will also hit us," says Michael Donnermeyer, a spokesman for the SPD. "Because we are seen as possibly going into a coalition with this party, such proposals [like the gas tax] are not so nice."

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