German Greens: From Flower to Power, Sneakers to Wingtips

Foreign minister in the new coalition government reflects party's evolution from a strictly eco-left party.

The most famous pair of sneakers in German politics undoubtedly belongs to Joschka Fischer. The leader of the environmentalist-oriented Greens party tramped onto Germany's stodgy political scene in the mid-1980s, taking his oath of office as environment minister of Hesse state in tennis shoes and jeans.

Today Mr. Fischer is poised to become Germany's new foreign minister. As he accompanies Chancellor-Elect Gerhard Schrder to Washington this week, Fischer will presumably be wearing the de rigueur dark suit. If he wears sneakers at all, it will be on one of his morning jogs.

The transformation of Fischer from street revolutionary to foreign minister is symbolic of the Greens. Twenty years after its founding, the once iconoclastic party is about to become the junior coalition partner of Mr. Schrder's Social Democrats, who defeated Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government in last month's federal elections.

"Everything that you once swore by you've thrown into the Rhine [River]," one of Fischer's fiercest opponents, Chancellor Kohl, said before the vote. But the words might well have come from critics within the party, who often claim its leaders have abandoned their founding principles. Born out of the antinuclear movement, the Greens first appeared in the Bundestag, or parliament, in 1983. Their radical demands, such as banning nuclear energy and abolishing the Army and NATO, shook up the political establishment.

"In the beginning the party was not only in opposition to other parties, but against the political system as a whole," remembers Rezzo Schlauch, Fischer's probable successor as leader of the Greens in the Bundestag.

Although some members of the party bitterly opposed the move as a sell-out, the Greens began to take on political accountability by entering so-called "red-green" coalitions with Social Democrats on local and state levels. A self-educated former taxi driver, Fischer became the first Green minister on the state level in 1985.

"The Greens began to formulate practical solutions rather than just say what they were against," says Thomas Poguntke, a political scientist at the University of Mannheim.

Other parties seeing 'Green'

At the same time, the party's color began to rub off on the established parties. Acid rain, nuclear waste, and recycling became issues of national concern.

Steering the party to an eventual coalition with the Social Democrats on the federal level was Fischer. "The political system changed him," says Sibylle Krause-Burger, author of a recent Fischer biography.

"The experience as parliamentarian taught him that Realpolitik - not revolutionary illusions - can change things," she says.

'Realos' vs. 'fundis'

The Greens have long been split between Fischer's "realos," who seek a pragmatic approach to politics, and "fundis," who still retain an uncompromising left-wing line. Many commentators have suggested that Germany's new "red-green" coalition government could be strained by this split within the party.

The "realo" leadership faced nationwide embarrassment when a majority of delegates at the party convention last spring voted against Germany's peacekeeping role in Bosnia and for hiking gasoline prices up to $12 a gallon.

In the current coalition talks, the Greens generally see eye to eye with the Social Democrats on economic issues and agree that the country's antiquated citizenship law needs reforming. Yet on environmental questions, the Greens insist on a quick shutdown of Germany's 19 nuclear plants, an increased gas tax to offset other tax cuts, and an 80 m.p.h. speed limit on the no-holds-barred autobahn.

Silent on NATO

On controversial foreign policy issues - namely German involvement in future NATO missions - the "fundis" have been unusually silent. "By becoming foreign minister, Fischer can discipline the party," says Mr. Poguntke, the political scientist. "He can force his party to toe the line." Many top Greens are confident that the rank and file will not wreck the party's credibility now that it is finally in power. Yet the party still faces many challenges ahead.

For one, the party is a child of the West German protest movement of the 1980s and carries distinctly western traits as a result. Overall, eastern Germans are less concerned with environmental protection than with acquiring the living standard they were denied by communism. Not surprisingly, the Greens are not represented in any of the five eastern German state legislatures.

Mr. Schlauch grants that the Greens' future as an all-German party will depend on an economic upswing.

But, he says, "the biggest challenge will be to go from being an opposition party to a ruling party. After the coalition talks, it's important that we don't disappear into the rows of gray suits."

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