It’s less than six months before Germany is to hold federal elections and the Greens are in terrible shape. The Social Democrats’ (SPD) choice of Martin Schulz as their chancellor candidate surprised and further destabilized the environmental party. Each party must win at least 5 percent of the votes to be represented in the country’s parliament, the Bundestag, and there is a growing fear that the Greens might not get there this time.
At the same time, membership in the Green party is at a record high. But what will they make of it? Can they improve their prospects before the elections in September? There’s not much to indicate this right now. Two of the top Greens, parliamentary leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt and party chairman Cem Özdemir, are accepted but not loved. "There is a widespread fear of saying clearly what they think," said the Göttingen Institute for Democratic Research’s Michael Lühmann, who has been studying the Greens for years.
One of the main problems, according to Mr. Lühmann, is that the Greens are focusing on ecology in the election campaign, but this isn’t an area the party leaders are strong on. "Of the two top candidates, no one takes over the environmental portfolio," he said. For him, it was a mistake to abandon the popular Robert Habeck, who is so well-liked in Germany. Mr. Habeck would have better understood how to put environmental issues in the foreground, while being less dogmatic, said Mr. Lühmann. When the party was choosing their top candidates, Mr. Habeck won jus 75 votes fewer than Mr. Özdemir - and the voices of those who want him to take on a more important role in the party are increasing. "They’ve forgotten the questions and replaced them with supposed knowledge. That doesn’t work for the Greens," Mr. Lühmann said. Mr. Habeck, on the other hand, brings opponents in house, talks with them and tries to find solutions, said Mr. Lühmann.
Between 2010 and 2012, the global financial crisis, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima nuclear disaster meant that the opportunities for growth for an environmental party were bigger than ever, but the Greens did not capitalize on any of this.
The party establishment is trying to defend its choices ahead of the election. "We have opted for continuity and experience," says Christian Kühn, the party’s spokesman for construction and housing in parliament. Other long-term party members are much more critical but unwilling to go on the record. There’s a lack of passion, they say. The party seems to be trying to do everything correctly and not let a rash political demand turn them into an untouchable party. Off the record, they say that there is a real fear of being passed over by the voters completely.
Oswald Metzger, a former Green party member and now a member of the Christian Democrats (CDU) said he see the Greens as “emaciated.”
“Just don’t create a scandal," is now the motto of many Greens, he said.
Peter Meiwald, a Green environmental politician, said he too sees work to be done here. The party ultimately must make it clear, “why strong Greens are needed,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be tight.” It’s a bitter thing to accept for a party that is part of eleven of the country’s 16 state governments but has sat on the opposition’s bench for 12 years at the federal level.
The party is even failing to score points with its main theme of the environment. "We have a perception problem for Green issues, although more and more people consider clean water and healthy food important," says Mr. Meiwald. Researcher Mr. Lühmann sees other failures as well. Between 2010 and 2012, the global financial crisis, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima nuclear disaster meant that the opportunities for growth for an environmental party were bigger than ever, he said. But the Greens did not capitalize on any of this, he said, despite the fact that in the post Joschka Fischer (former Green foreign minister) era, "they had worked very programmatically and asked uncomfortable questions." After the 2005 election losses, the party's figureheads stepped down quickly. The Greens, said Mr. Lühmann, were still considered to be outside of the establishment, despite their years in a coalition government with the SPD, still considered to be a party that could address unpleasant issues and could rally protest voters behind them.
Then came the Pirate party, who were the new non-conformists. And today many of the undecided, the hesitant and the defiant are voting for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and no longer side with the Greens.
The fact that climate change poses an existential threat "is described very impressively by climate researchers," said Michael Hüther, director of the Institute of the German Economy Cologne (IW). However, “debates are not fueled and elections are not won” with apocalypses, he said.
The question of how to reconcile ecology with the economy presents the party with a difficult challenge. Economics researcher Mr. Hüther said that the Green voters are still dominated by the Left party, which tended to vilify economic growth. That left out a growing number of voters who were for an environmental approach to the economy but weren’t against economic growth as a whole. "Growth is, after all, also central to social progress,” said Mr. Hüther.
Mr. Özdemir told Handelsblatt he is confident in his role as one of the Greens’ top candidates, and acknowledged the transformation that he as a politician and the party have made over the years, especially with regard to the economy. “Ecology is no longer an isolated issue but is increasingly interlinked with the economy,” he said. “For example, when I became a member of the Greens in 1981, my motive was certainly not to someday save the car. Today, we are discussing the future of the industry with leading automotive manufacturers - not just for reasons of environmental protection.”
The Greens' strategy should be to establish themselves as thought leaders, said Gottfried Härle, CEO of UnternehmensGrün, the German Association of Green Business. He sees no alternative to the ecological rebuilding of the economy. Other associations see the Greens quite differently.
"The green transformation (of the economy) is based on regulation and not on the market," criticized Oliver Zander of the Federation of German Employers' Associations in the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industries.
Consensus comes from trade unionists: "How do we make sure that those who work in ecologically high-risk fields, such as coal-fired power, don’t wind up without a job when the end of the coal industry comes?" asked Norbert Reuter, head of the wage policy department of the trade union Verdi. He welcomes the readiness of the Greens to deal with this issue and to find results quickly.
Manfred Güllner, the CEO of Forsa, a German opinion polling company, said he believes the reason the Greens are struggling is that they have neglected to build young electoral potential for too long. The Greens got their start in a milieu that no longer exists, he said. In particular, the party appealed to left-wing young adults from well-off families, for whom the environment was dear to their heart and who were opposed to the established political system. Those times are past, said Mr. Güllner, and it was "a mistake to perceive the Greens as a left party."
This is why trying to work out how to achieve a coalition of the Greens, SPD and the Left Party is not the best plan, he said. Instead the Greens should take a deep breath and work toward a future coalition with the CDU, even if this year the party still doesn’t have enough votes to play a role in a governing coalition.
"The parties are, in the end, much more similar than how it sometimes appears,” Mr. Güllner said.
Officially, the Greens rely on independence and the power of green topics - what party researcher Mr. Lühmann considers the best option, even if one can accuse the party of arbitrariness. "The message must be: If you vote Green, you will get Green policies, and if you vote Green, you are voting against the grand coalition," said Kerstin Andreae, deputy head of the Green Party's parliamentary group.
Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin, focusing on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change. To contact the author: [email protected].