Tobias Schwarz/Reuters/File
A member of Germany's environmental party, The Greens, knitting a sock during a party congress in Berlin in April this year. As Germany's federal elections approach this weekend, smaller parties like the Greens appear to have established themselves as permanent political fixtures.

Are German politics about to get a lot more unpredictable?

For smaller parties like the Greens and the Left, Sunday's elections could herald something formerly unthinkable: genuine staying power.

With just days before Germans take to the polls, major change at the top seems unlikely, with Chancellor Angela Merkel poised to retain her post. But the larger political landscape is shifting under her feet.

Voters are moving away from the traditional big-tent parties, in an evolution best embodied by the Green party. In past decades, the German (and previously the West German) political status quo was said to be a two-and-a-half party system, comprised of the two volkspartei, or "people’s parties" – the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) and the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart the CSU). The so-called half-party was the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP).

The fragmented political landscape may result in greater political diversity in the German parliament and government ministries. But it could also introduce unpredictability to future German governments, thus far a rarity for Europe's economic and political anchor.

“Now it’s moving to a four-, perhaps a five-party system," says Andrea Römmele of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance. Potentially the biggest beneficiaries of that shift, at least this election season, are the once-fringe Greens.

Green surge

Insurgents for much of the 1980s, the Greens are now “fully mainstream,” Dr. Römmele says.

Two years ago, the Greens were briefly the country’s second most popular party, in the wake of Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster. Though their current poll numbers appear to have normalized, an unremarkable election showing would still demonstrate something once hardly guaranteed: genuine staying power.

“There is no star at the moment, but they have a really strong team,” says Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist and author of a biography on the former face of the Greens, Joschka Fischer, that doubles as a history of the party.

The Greens are now part of the coalitions governing five of Germany’s 16 states, and actually lead the government in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. Among the Green team’s starting lineup are Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Jürgen Trittin, who lead the party’s election list; party Co-Chairman Cem Özdemir, a German of Turkish descent; Boris Palmer, the youthful mayor of Tübingen; and Baden-Württemberg’s Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann.

Perhaps the biggest riddle now confronting the Greens is that of their own success. Onetime cornerstones of Green campaigns – pacifism, anti-nuclear power, pro green energy and European integration – have become virtual default positions on the German political scene.

“They have been so successful that their policies are in all the other party platforms,” Römmele says.

Need for a new theme

This has left the Greens searching for issues to differentiate themselves. In this campaign, they have run largely “on the idea of redistributing wealth,” Hockenos says.

But the party is divided on economic policy among “all kinds of visions,” Hockenos adds. The clearest divide remains between traditional leftist state-interventionist views and more free-market-oriented visions. More traditional leftists won out in designing the current campaign platform, but the struggle continues as the self-identified left-of-center party draws much of its voting base from wealthy, educated urbanites in the western part of the country.

This campaign has seen the party push for an €8.50 ($11.35) per hour national minimum wage, and tax policies that target high-income earners. They had been betting on so-called post-materialist values, whereby voters see everyday pocket book issues as secondary.

“It doesn’t quite seem to be that way, at least not to the degree we thought,” Römmele says.

Even amid intra-party disagreement on an issue as central as economic orientation, the Greens look set to match the 10.7 percent of the vote they captured in 2009, vaulting them over the increasingly unpopular FDP. One Green Bundestag official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal party thinking, told the Monitor anything surpassing that number would be marked a success – and anything below, a disappointment.

The new multiparty system

The Greens are not the only party to benefit from the demise of the volkspartei system. Smaller parties could garner some 40 percent of the country’s total votes, 10 percent more than a decade ago and spread among many more factions.

While the Greens court western urbanites, Die Linke – or The Left, a successor to the old East German communists – draws its base from the still much poorer and economically stagnant eastern parts of the country. Other contenders to enter the Bundestag include the anti-establishment Pirate Party, the anti-EU Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the FDP. 

While the Pirates and AfD look likely to fall short of the 5 percent threshold to make it into the Bundestag – a requirement meant to keep out truly fringe parties – the Greens and Die Linke are both polling at around 10 percent and have established themselves as permanent political fixtures.

A poll released Sept. 18 by the Allensbach agency had Mrs. Merkel's CDU-CSU drawing 39 percent support, the SPD 26 percent, the Greens 11 percent, Die Linke 9 percent and FDP squeaking into parliament with 6 percent. For most of the election campaign the Greens have polled between 10 and 12 percent as the third most popular party. 

The 5-percent threshold for a party to sit in the Bundestag effectively shrinks the amount of public support needed to form a government – the ruling party or coalition only needs a majority of the seats, not the overall public vote. With as many as 10 percent of voters likely to support parties that fail to reach parliament, there is an outside chance that Merkel could form a government on her own if the CDU-CSU can take just 44 percent of the vote.

A role in government?

But most observers expect a coalition will be necessary. In that event, she will have her pick of coalition partners including the Greens, the FDP, and even a grand coalition with the SPD.

The Green party official insisted the party would not consider joining a coalition government with Merkel.

“Even though they are becoming more conservative, they would lose a lot of their identity if they did this,” said Christian Miess, a political analyst based in Nuremberg and co-founder of Citizens for Europe, an nongovernmental organization promoting cross-border European politics.

But Hockenos says a CDU-Green government remains as yet a possibility. Green pledges to the contrary are “all part of campaigning,” he says – the SPD has made similar denials as well.

Still, when the dust clears after the Sept. 22 election, two things appear all but assured. First, Merkel looks set to stay as chancellor. Second, “the days of the volkspartei are gone,” Hockenos says.

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