Is populism waning in Germany? The steady rise of The Greens party

Why We Wrote This

It’s not just the far right that’s on the political rise in Germany. The once marginal Greens are gaining ground among voters looking for a counterweight to right-wing populism.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
New leaders of the German Greens party, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, attend a news conference at the party headquarters in Berlin on Jan. 29, 2018. The Greens are now the country’s second-largest party.

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In Germany, the rise of the hard right hasn’t gone unanswered. It has proven a galvanizing force for The Greens party, which has become the country’s second largest according to recent polls. Environmentalist at its core, the party has taken on the role of countering Germany’s extreme right-wing populists.

“The Greens have come to be seen as the most clearly articulated opposite of the populist right,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the Berlin arm of the think tank Open Europe. “And they represent the young, metropolitan, open society, and pro-European middle class.” The mainstreaming of environmental issues in Germany and increasing unity and focus within the party has helped put The Greens in a position of influence. It is gaining ground even in traditionally conservative states, and is now the strongest party of the center-left in southern Germany.

It has done so by siphoning support from both major parties. Around 42 percent of “new” Greens voters have previously backed Social Democrats, while a quarter were Christian Democrats. As a former Greens leader says, “We are capable of attracting the youth vote and a clear stance in favor of our core values has helped tremendously. Other parties have wavered.” 

As is the case in many countries across Europe, the past few years have seen significant growth in the political far right in Germany. Even as the country’s immigration crisis has ebbed, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a far-right German political party, has surged in the polls, disrupting the country’s usually centrist, consensus-focused politics.

But the rise of the hard right hasn’t gone unanswered. It has proven a galvanizing force for Germany’s Greens party, which has become the country’s second largest according to recent polls.

While sticking to its environmentalist ideas, The Greens have added an iron core of pragmatism that has made the party a formidable power broker in a rapidly morphing political landscape. And in particular, it has focused on the challenge of keeping extreme right-wing populists out.

“We are the driving force for a modernization of our society on many fronts and the AfD is a reaction to that,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, who co-led The Greens from 2002 to 2008 and now represents the party in the European Parliament, where he is also co-chair of the European Green Party. “They are anti-climate policy, anti-being open to the world, anti-liberal, anti-gender. ... We Greens personify everything they hate.”

Ragtag roots

Distinguished by its smiling “Nuclear Power No Thanks” buttons and its Volkswagen buses, The Greens’ story in Germany begins in 1980 with a ragtag alliance of hippies, environmental activists, and left-wing radicals.

Opposed to nuclear power and the stationing of U.S. warheads in West Germany, The Greens soon became a player on the political scene, but were overshadowed by the established Christian Democrat conservatives and center-left Social Democrats.

Today, though, The Greens’ environmental focus resonates with a German middle class that has embraced green mainstays such as organic farming, bicycling, and recycling. Moreover, it is the only German party whose pro-European, refugee-friendly, liberal-democratic credentials are undisputed.

Some 55% of Greens voters in Germany are women, according to Mr. Bütikofer. The party does well among first-time voters and with educated mothers with two children, a key demographic.

“The Greens have come to be seen as the most clearly articulated opposite of the populist right,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the Berlin arm of the think tank Open Europe. “And they represent the young, metropolitan, open society, and pro-European middle class.”

Business traditionally mistrusts environmentalist parties, but with the mainstreaming of sustainable production and clean energy, The Greens have even succeeded in winning over support among the Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies that are the backbone of the German economy.

“The Greens have mostly abandoned their neo-Marxist rhetoric and are now more inclined to accept a model of a social-market economy with the opportunity to create jobs by investing in green technologies,” says Dr. Wohlgemuth.

A rising party

The mainstreaming of green issues can be seen in the way thousands of German schoolchildren skip school and go on strike for the “Fridays for Future” protests to force action on climate change. Some 25,000 youths joined the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg when she came to take part in a March 29 demonstration in Berlin.

Climate change and opposing right-wing populism are core issues. Increasingly the electorate believes The Greens would better cope with these challenges than the coalition of the Social Democrats and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU, the center-right Christian democratic political alliance. 

And the party has been revitalized under the joint leadership of Annalena Baerbock, an experienced Greens operative, and Robert Habeck, an intellectual and novelist-turned-politician. In a country where the higher ranks of power are often criticized for remoteness and a lack of empathy, Ms. Baerbock and Mr. Habeck have humanized the political process.

In February, Ms. Baerbock wept in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, when historian Saul Friedländer told of being separated from his parents as a child during the Holocaust. Ms. Baerbock said she couldn’t help but think of her own two children.

“Life would have been easier without politics. I had a comfortable situation, had many children around me, I was writing books,” Mr. Habeck writes in his personal website. “But I had shut myself off, and I started to attack the stupid politicians. So I got up, went to a party meeting and came back as a regional chairperson.” 

The Greens are learning a tough side too, taking stances on hot-button issues.

At a demonstration in the capital this month, where rents have doubled in the last decade, tens of thousands of Berliners called for an end to “rental insanity” by expropriating private housing and forcing megafirms that own more than 3,000 properties to sell them to the city.

“Politicians should play a role in limiting the return on investment, for example through regional rent ceilings and an increase in the stock of public housing stock,” Mr. Habeck says.

The Greens have also shed a habit of damaging internal bickering about policy minutiae to focus on heading off the far right. “Three or four years ago, there were lots of internal fights between the factions about policy details. With the rise of the populists, these debates are over in The Greens. They maintain their integrity and stick to their program,” says Arne Jungjohann, a political analyst at The Greens party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation.

‘A potent force with national ambitions’ 

That has put the party in a position of influence. Late last year, The Greens scored electoral wins in traditionally conservative Catholic Bavaria, doubling its share of the vote compared to 2013. It is also leading the government coalition in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, making it now the strongest party of the center-left in southern Germany.

What makes The Greens so electable is that the party is seen as a legitimate partner for established political parties. Today Greens govern in nine coalitions out of 16 German states.

Some of that is due to history. From 1998 to 2005, Greens were the coalition partners of the Social Democrats in the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But its long absence from power may have helped: The party has not held a role in central government since then, avoiding divisive issues such as the eurocrisis, migration, and foreign policy.

The Greens have been taking support from both major parties. Around 42 percent of “new” Greens voters have previously backed Social Democrats, while a quarter were Christian Democrats. And it is actively wooing the bases of its rivals, such as the trade union movement, long a bastion of Social Democrat support.

A real test for The Greens will be three state elections coming up in September, two of them in states in the former East Germany, where The Greens have often struggled. “It will be much more difficult for the party at the local elections to be held in eastern German states this year. Here, The Greens’ political, social, and organizational base is quite weak and so is the potential to make much progress against populist parties both on the left and the right,” says Open Europe’s Dr. Wohlgemuth.

Despite the challenges, The Greens will go into these elections as a more confident party and a more potent force with national ambitions.

“We are capable of attracting the youth vote and a clear stance in favor of our core values has helped tremendously. Other parties have wavered,” says former Greens leader Mr. Bütikofer.

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