Why it’s easier being green in Germany

A novel experiment in shared leadership helps boost the Greens party high in the polls ahead of an election. The party knows climate decisions will require patient listening and civil debate.

AP
Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock touches co-leader Robert Habeck after she was chosen April 19 to lead her party as candidate for German chancellor in the Bundestag federal elections in September.

Germany is in an era of firsts. For the first time since the founding of the postwar republic in 1949, an incumbent chancellor will not be up for reelection this September. 

For the first time since it was founded more than four decades ago, the Greens party is ahead in the polls. On April 19, the party settled on its first candidate to run for German chancellor, Annalena Baerbock. She is also the youngest to run for the office, not to mention a medaled trampolinist. The mother of two will often do a handstand to show her strength and agility.

Yet another first may matter more to Germans as the world’s fourth largest economy struggles with the pandemic and a desire to solve climate change. 

In a society whose politics already favor consensus building, the Greens set out in 2018 to show that a party once known for sharp disputes and chaotic politics can set an even higher model for patiently bridging disagreements, giving opponents a way to save face, and trying not to hang the future on one person. It selected Ms. Baerbock and a more senior party leader, Robert Habeck, to work together as party co-leaders. 

This ruling duumvirate generally worked. The two even shared an office. They clearly get along, complement each other, and have forged a deeper agreement among party members on finding Germany’s long-sought Mitte (middle). They showed it is possible to argue on the merits of an issue without shaming opponents.

The Greens have moved to the center on many issues, softening their eco-warrior image. When it came time to pick a candidate for chancellor this month, Mr. Habeck lost the vote but graciously gave way. Now the Greens have a shot at not only winning enough seats in the election to form a coalition with other parties, but also providing a chance for Ms. Baerbock to succeed Angela Merkel.

The Greens are still focused heavily on climate change, with a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% from a 1990 baseline by 2030, far more than the country’s current goal of 55%. But they realize that the hard political work in changing lifestyles and driving innovation first requires making sure public debate does not turn to dissension and that truth can arise out of respect, listening, and civility to divergent ideas.

“If we don’t do politics clearly differently, we will be stuck in the last century,” said Ms. Baerbock. She promises a new style of leadership and, if she wins, a prominent role for Mr. Habeck in government. Their partnership stands out amid a particularly divisive contest for leadership of Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. The party that might be first across the finish line in the next election may have already set a new first for Germany. 

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