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How Germany's Greens rose from radical fringe to ruling power

In Sunday's historic win, the Greens took power in Baden Württemberg, a stronghold of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party for nearly six decades.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / March 28, 2011

Top candidate of the Green Party in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, celebrates after the first predictions of the state elections, in Stuttgart southern Germany on Sunday, March 27. An exit poll indicated Sunday that German chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party has suffered a defeat in the state election after almost six decades in power there.

Michael Gottschalk/dapd/AP

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Frankfurt

When Germany's left-leaning Green party was born 30 years ago, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt dismissed them outright. "They’re just environmental idiots who will have disappeared again soon," he said.

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They didn't. In fact, in a turn of events reverberating across the nation, the Greens on Sunday ended six decades of conservative rule in one of Germany’s wealthiest states, completing their transformation from a radical protest party to a mainstream force shaking the traditional political order.

"To see the party go from that to this ... is a sign that it has a strong chance in the federal elections," says Miranda Schreurs, head of the European Environmental and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils, a Berlin-based network of advisers appointed by 16 European countries.

For the first time ever in Germany, and only the second time in European history, a Green will be prime minister of a major regional state. "It’s a new political era," says German Green party leader Claudia Roth.

Capitalizing on a mix of nuclear aversion and local furor over a highly unpopular railway project in Stüttgart, the Greens doubled their representation to 24.2 percent in Baden Württemberg, stealing power from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The Greens were also the clear winners in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, where they tripled their share of the vote and weakened the Social Democratic grip.

The nuclear issue "fell into their laps. It was like a lucky kiss from heaven," says David Conradt, a specialist in German politics at East Carolina University in North Carolina. "They're benefiting from the mistakes from everybody else."

A longtime party

Germany's antinuclear, environmentalist tradition has deep roots. Ironically, nowhere is it better displayed than in Baden Württemberg, which as home to Daimler and Porsche is known as Germany’s "No. 1 Car Region."

An hour's drive from Stüttgart's Daimler headquarters, at the edge of the Black Forest, the university towns of Freiburg and Tübingen have in the past decade both elected Green mayors, forming political counterweights in a conservative stronghold that Mrs. Merkel’s party ruled for 58 years.

In the 1970s, Freiburg became the cradle of Germany's anti-nuclear movement after local activists killed plans for a nuclear power station nearby. The battle brought energy-policy issues closer to the people and increased involvement in local politics.

Freiburg also revolutionized behavior by making its medieval center more pedestrian-friendly, laying down a lattice of bike paths and introducing a flat rate for tramways and buses.

Environmental research became a backbone of the region’s economy, which boasts Germany’s largest solar-research center and an international center for renewable energy. "This Green model based on renewable energy and quality of life, and not only on GDP growth, is moving beyond the city to the regional level," says Ms. Schreurs. ''It's become mainstream."

That was not the case 30 years ago.

A rowdy party

The German Green party was born in the late 1960s with young, rebellious students trying to shake the political establishment. In the 1970s, the Greens became a platform for antinuclear protests. In the 1980s, they embraced the antiwar movement.

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