Flood buoys Germany's left
One month before elections, the country's Green Party has inched up in opinion polls.
BERLIN — As the swarthy flood waters of the River Elbe drain into the North Sea, Germans are just beginning to calculate the enormous costs of this summer's catastrophe.
It's estimated that Europe's biggest economy will spend more than $10 billion on the clean-up operation. But for Germany's center-left government, there are already signs of a political windfall. Though still trailing in the polls, the government's handling of the floods and the environmental concerns raised by them have buoyed its prospects in next month's elections.
In fact, the public's newfound concern for the country's environmental well-being may stave off the demise of the beleaguered Green Party, the government's junior coalition partner.
"We feel vindicated," Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and the highest ranking Green member in the government, said on a televised talk show this week.
For the first time during this summer's campaign, the ruling Social Democrats and the Greens are on the offensive. For years, the Greens have warned Germans about the consequences of global warming, about urban overdevelopment, and the benefits of alternative energy sources. Now, the environmentalists are milking their standard issues for all they are worth.
The Greens have pushed so forcefully of late that other parties have even accused it of opportunism and schadenfreude at a time of national anguish.
Across Europe and Russia, flooding in recent weeks is responsible for the deaths of at least 97 people. The floods have driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, ruined harvests, and destroyed buildings and roads. In Germany alone, 15 people have died and 25 are missing.
But Mr. Fischer denied there is any Green glee over the disaster. "It doesn't surprise me to hear [critics say] this. The opposition is worried that our government's achievements will now be seen in another light."
The so-called Red-Green coalition has pushed through an array of ground-breaking ecological legislation over the past four years. Germany, for example, is phasing out nuclear power. New standards have upgraded one of Europe's most comprehensive recycling regimes. At the center of the campaign debate, a controversial "ecological tax" has been slapped on fossil fuels.
The Greens point out that the conservative Christian Democrats voted against 14 of 16 new "green laws." The free-market Free Democrats the conservatives' likely coalition partner should they defeat the incumbents opposed all 16 bills.
But since the floods, all of Germany's parties are rushing to jump on the ecological bandwagon. The Christian Democrats even seem to be backtracking on their pledge to rescind the until- recently-unpopular ecological tax.
"There's a de facto consensus across the political spectrum that these floods are associated with global warming," says political scientist Hajo Funke of the Free University in Berlin. "Even the conservatives are now trying to show they have a solid record on environmental issues, and that more must be done to change things on a big scale."
Wearing rubber boots and an anorak, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has looked capable and concerned as he toured the disaster areas in the role of crisis manager. He announced that $7 billion in tax cuts would be postponed in order to pay for the flood damage.
Conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber says that, instead, the government should reintroduce a controversial tax for businesses on profits made from selling holdings in other firms to help fund the relief effort.
Since the floods, the Greens have inched their way up in opinion polls to over 7 percent. Nevertheless, the social Democrats and the Greens together still trail their conservative challengers by 7 to 9 percentage points with only a month remaining in the campaign.
Some political commentators have warned that the flood fallout may only bring minor relief to the Green Party's long-term dilemmas. The party's popularity has plummeted since its high point in the 1980s, when it regularly captured 10 percent or more of the vote in West Germany.
Over the past four years, many of the party's original members abandoned the Greens, disillusioned with the compromises it made while in power. "I'm more critical of [the Greens] now," says Henricke Paul, who studies horticulture in Berlin and voted for the Greens in the past. But this time she's undecided about who she'll vote for. "In power, they seemed so wishy washy. What remains of what they originally stood for? I have to decide for myself what is really possible and realistic to expect from them."
Many Greens have strong pacifist leanings, and have still not forgiven Fischer for approving German military involvement in the 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslavia.
A recent scandal over parliamentarians' private use of frequent-flier miles accumulated on business trips took some of the varnish off the Greens' squeaky clean image.
"The Greens have always tried to claim the mantle of the 'better human beings,' " quipped Free Democrat politician Wolfgang Gerhardt recently. "Now we can see clearly that's not the case." The scandal forced one Green parliamentarian to resign.
The premier Green party in Europe has also failed to make inroads in former communist East Germany. There, the West German-born leftists lack representation in even a single state legislature.
Heike Werwoll, a nurse, rolls her eyes when asked about her fellow East Germans. "Maybe now," she says, referring to the flooding, "they'll wake up. There are problems in the world bigger than those in their little backyards."