Martin Schulz has turned the SPD’s fortunes around. He’s done the same for the Greens too, but not for the better. While Angela Merkel’s challenger is reviving tired Social Democrats the Greens are slipping in the polls.
It may be a bit early, but nonetheless interesting to see where the trend in German politics is going. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has been in decline for years, has jumped by a third in voter popularity in the space of a few weeks. And in the same period, the Greens have fallen by a third, or so say the opinion polls.
The wrong issues?
The Greens are no strangers to a sudden drop in favor among potential voters. Four years ago, they only managed a very modest 8.4 percent representation in parliamentary elections - around a third less than expected. They are currently not even the third-strongest party in parliament, having been overtaken slightly by the Left party.
The Greens have partly done this to themselves by focusing on insignificant non-issues, such as their 2013 proposal for a weekly Veggie Day, where canteens would be obliged to serve only vegetarian options once a week. That turned off even long-standing Green party supporters. Also in 2013 came the damaging discussion over the role of some Green party members who, in the 1980s, advocated on behalf of pedophiles. Suddenly, the Greens found themselves cast in the role of a fringe party with some strange views.
Now, four years later, the Greens are potentially focusing again on the wrong issues. Its two top representatives, Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt are clearly trying to revive the party's core by putting climate change front and center. It seems honorable, but in this era of right-wing populism and issues around social justice and equality, it's also risky.
Climate change in the era of populism
The party is also focusing on other issues that are well-intentioned, but simply not a priority for many voters. It wants to see the end of factory farming, a reduction in the level of arms exports and the elimination of plastic carrier bags. At least, that's what the party's left wing wants, and they are a powerful faction. The Greens are due to present their election platform on March 10. It will be interesting to observe the dynamic between two of the party's leading members. Former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin represents the party's left wing, while Baden-Württemberg's Winfried Kretschmann - the first and only Green state premier - speaks for the realists.
Both men have a tendency to regularly upset party discipline and endanger its hard-won consensus. Kretschmann has once again provoked a party crisis by praising the traditional form of marriage as the most preferred lifestyle in an essay he wrote for the German newspaper "Die Zeit." It was seen as a slap in the face to the Greens defense of "marriage for everyone."
The polarizing issue of refugees
Germany's treatment of refugees and the related issue of national security are bound to be huge topics in the upcoming election. But here too, the Greens have sidelined themselves politically. Even the fact that they are currently represented in 11 state governments isn't helping them to gain any political capital. The Greens are basically in agreement that the practice of deportation is bad, but there are still a few regional associations that do not want to deportation to be off the table completely.
Even the rhetoric following the mass attacks on women during the 2015 New Year's Eve festivities in Cologne had the Greens going on the defensive in the public debate. A top party representative said it was wrong to make the violent sexual assaults - carried out mainly by young men of North African descent, many of whom were refugees - a refugee issue. The argument was that the same sort of thing happens year after year at the Munich Oktoberfest. Even those who support the Greens have a hard time with that kind of discourse. The party is slowly starting to realize that it's not enough to just pass out "Refugees welcome" buttons.
The Schulz factor
Many supporters are now starting to fear that the big political topics - refugees, national security, the EU crisis and populism - are going to be negotiated at the expense of the Greens. With Martin Schulz, the SPD now has a top candidate who can mobilize the party and bring questions about social equality and justice back to the center of political debate.
But they could share in shaping the future if the pro-Schulz trend remains, and the Greens and the Left party were to make gains in time for the election. That would mean that a political first for Germany - a red-red-green coalition - could become a reality. Only of course, if the Merkel factor doesn't spell the end of this left-wing fantasy.