TAXOPHOBIA Green Eggs and Ham

The Green Party, rocked by poor polls, is hoping a focus on issues such as industrial farming and building infrastructure will win back voters, but is steering clear of divisive debates over tax increases.
Parliamentary leaders Anton Hofreiter and Katrin Göring-Eckardt.

It has been more than 15 months since the German Green Party's poor showing in the federal elections, yet it is still struggling to put the past behind it.

Before the 2013 polls, the Greens made a bold call for higher taxes and more social spending. Many in the party now blame that approach for the party’s performance. It received just 8.4 percent of the vote, well below the 10.7 percent it got in 2009 and far less than many in the party had hoped for.

In 2011, after the Fukushima disaster, the firmly anti-nuclear Greens seemed to be tapped into the zeitgeist, at one stage polling as high as 20 percent.

Ironically, however, the decision that year by Chancellor Angela Merkel to ditch nuclear power and instead focus on renewables stole much of the party’s thunder. By 2013, it was failing to attract voters beyond its core supporters and was embarassingly pushed into fourth place, polling less than the far-left Left Party.

Since then it has recovered somewhat. Its current poll ratings are between 11 and 12 percent. At the same time, it is still struggling to find another theme that really connects with voters.

At its annual New Year retreat this week, the Greens' parliamentary group has been taking stock and discussing policy for the coming year.

However, it has held off from addressing issues that divide the party. For a start, it is not expected to issue any new policy statements regarding economic issues or taxation at the meeting, which began on Wednesday and ends today.

The party’s lack of a coherent tax policy is a reflection of the deep divisions in the party.

Instead it is adopting positions on other issues such as industrial livestock farming, an ecological restructuring of the economy and improving the work-life balance.

At the retreat, the parliamentary group formulated a six-point program regarding agriculture. It includes clamping down on misue of antibiotics in industrial livestock farming. “It is scandalous that these drugs are included by the tons in animal feed,” joint parliamentary leader, Anton Hofreiter, said.

The Greens also plan to call for more public and private spending on infrastructure such as roads, bridges and power grids. The meeting’s concluding statement, which Handelsblatt has seen, states that such spending could be financed without violating a constitutional debt brake.

Gustav Horn, an economist who advises the Green Party, also recommended more investment in infrastructure. He is the scientific director of the Institute for Macroeconomics and Economic Research of the Hans Böckler Foundation, which has close ties to labor unions.

“We are putting our prosperity at risk if we continue to neglect investments in infrastructure,” Mr. Horn said.

He does not expect, however, that long-term spending for new infrastructure can be kept within current debt limits. He said Germany now has a financial cushion of about €20 billion ($23.6 billion).  But by next year, investments of that magnitude will not be possible under debts limits. He recommended instead that the Greens focus on how to achieve necessary financing.

Mr. Horn supports paying for investments through a higher wealth tax. “An investment program requires a tax-policy concept,” he said. “There is certainly a need to develop such a concept.”

But first the various wings of the party must agree on a future course. In the last election campaign, the Greens advocated for higher taxes. But on Tuesday, the joint heads of the Greens, Simone Peter and Cem Özdemir, ended a meeting of the party leadership without seriously addressing the issue.

The party has stated that it intends to speak out on economic policy in 2015. But Ms. Peter said the Greens would only present their proposals for taxation and financial policy by the end of 2016.

The party’s lack of a coherent tax policy is a reflection of deep divisions, between those who want to pursue the political middle ground and those who see the Greens as a party of the left.

Leading party figures such as Mr. Özdemir and Katrin Göring Eckhart, joint parliamentary leader, are firmly in the centrist camp. Many on the left-wing of the party accuse them of aiming for a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats after the next election in 2017.

An investment program requires a tax-policy concept. Gustav Horn, Scientific director, Institute for Macroeconomics and Economic Research

Two prominent left-wingers in the party, Agnieszka Brugger and Sven Lehmann, circulated a letter to the party ahead of this week’s meeting, criticizing its current direction.

The letter, entitled “Get out of the comfort zone and dare more!”, admonished the party leadership for moving too far to the center and watering down traditional Green themes. It also criticized members for failing to address social inequality.

They wrote that the Greens “are and have always been more than just an ecological party.”

Gregor Gysi, a prominent member of the Left Party, has recently called on the Greens to aim toward a coalition with his party and the Social Democrats, or SPD, after 2017.

After the 2013 election, the SPD decided that it would abandon a previous ban on cooperation with the Left Party, successors to the East German ruling communist party, at a federal level. In two of the previous three elections, the three parties would theoretically have had enough seats to form a governing coalition, and the SPD has formed coalitions with the Left Party at a regional level.

In December, the first state premier from the Left Party, Bodo Ramelow, took office, heading a coalition between his party, the SPD and Greens.

The current Green leadership is against making any firm commitment to such an alliance ahead of 2017. However, the party left-wingers have been more open to the idea. Whichever way the Greens ultimately turn on taxation could be a strong indication of which constellation they believe is most likely to get them back into government.


Anja Stehle is a reporter with Handelsblatt. Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered German politics for a decade. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]