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CDU-Green coalition still on the German table

Jefferson Chase
December 1, 2016

It may not be anyone's favorite constellation, but conservatives and Greens may have to cooperate if they want to govern. A closer look shows differences between the parties have been rapidly diminishing in recent years.

Deutschland Generaldebatte im Bundestag zum Haushalts-Etat 2017 Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The famous sentence from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" springs to mind after a speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel to a regional conference of the conservative Christian Democratic Union on Wednesday evening. In it, the chancellor distanced herself from the idea of a coalition with the Green Party but not without leaving the possibility open depending on the result of parliamentary elections next year.

Speaking in Münster ahead of next week's national CDU party conference, Merkel said she was "somewhat horrified" at the Green Party's support for a wealth tax.

"They're Greens after all," Merkel added. "The Greens are not our preferred partners."

But nearly in the same breath, Merkel went on to say that, in contrast with the past, a coalition with the Greens was no longer taboo and that she "hadn't exactly been overjoyed" at having to share power with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Social Democrats (SPD) during her first three terms in office either.

"At some point, if you want to govern, you have to be able to form coalitions," Merkel said.

It was unclear whether the chancellor was addressing that sentiment to ideologues within her own party or to the Greens - or both. In any case, for a politician as pragmatic as Merkel, a coalition with the Greens is by no means off the table. The latest polls put the combined support for the conservatives and the Greens at around 45 percent - almost enough for a parliamentary majority.

Could a partnership between two parties - parties that have often been bitter enemies - really coalesce after the German national election in September?

Relaxed collaborations

In 2005, former Green leader Joschka Fischer said he didn't how he could reach any sort of political agreement with Merkel. Those days are long gone, especially as the parties currently cooperate well in two of Germany's federal states.

Unterzeichnung Koalitionsvertrag Hessen 23.12.2013
Regional coalitions between the CDU and Greens have worked wellImage: Getty Images

A CDU-Green coalition has governed in the state of Hesse since 2014 with hardly any disagreements, and 62 percent of Hessians interviewed in the most recent poll said they're happy with their government. And a Green-led  coalition between the two parties that formed last May in Baden-Württemberg has also been a hit.

"There's been an astonishing lack of friction," Stuttgart-based journalist Markus Reiter told Deutsche Welle. "Twenty years ago, who would have thought that the Greens would be the leading partners in a coalition with the CDU? Whatever problems the two sides have with one another are resolved away from the public eye."

Part of the success of the two regional coalitions comes down to the personalities of the politicians involved. Hessian Premier Volker Bouffier (CDU) and his colleague from Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann (Greens), are both pioneers in this regard and have mooted the possibility of national cooperation between their two parties. But on a national level, policy overlaps could perhaps prove more important than personalities.

The two biggest issues dividing conservatives and Greens were always nuclear energy and refugees, but Greens have little to quibble about Merkel's support for phasing out nuclear power in Germany or accepting hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria and other crisis-hit parts of the world. Meanwhile, many conservatives see economic benefits in developing alternative energy sources and no longer feel culturally threatened by Green stances on gender equality and other social issues.

Social milieus coming together

Grüne mit Bart im Bundestag
The Greens have changed dramatically, as has the CDUImage: AP

The stereotype of a Green was once a long-haired, street-protesting idealist in a self-knit sweater, while the archetypal CDU member was seen as a buttoned-down churchgoer who voted exclusively according to his or her wallet/purse. But the cultural differences between members of the two parties have been rapidly dissipating. Environmentalists have settled down, while conservatives have opened up.

As Reiter puts it, Greens are quite happy to see the police keep thieves from breaking into their energy-efficient homes and stealing their 2000-euro bicycles while conservatives have no desire to see nuclear power plants built in their home villages, and today the daughter of a CDU-voting farmer may well live together with another woman in the big city.

"It's a cultural process that's been going on for years," Reiter explains. "Under Merkel, the CDU has grown accustomed to more diverse lifestyles. And the Greens have gotten much more bourgeois. Just look at Hessen. The CDU there used to be on the ultra-conservative margins. And yet they're now able to govern in a productive, acrimony-free coalition with Greens from Frankfurt, who tend to be quite left-wing. The social milieus have come together."

Reiter says both sides have moved toward the middle in equal measure, although he also points out that some of the most conservative CDU members have moved to the right-wing populist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD). Opposition to populists is another stance shared by the Greens and the CDU and could encourage the parties to form a national alliance in 2017.

But not everyone, of course, is a fan of the idea.

Still the best of enemies?

Deutschland Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel & Ministerpräsident Winfried Kretschmann
Green state Premier Kretschmann has few problems working with conservativesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Conservatives and Greens may have more common ground than ever before, but numerous conflicts of interest between their traditional voting bases still exist.

Business leaders, for instance, fear increased environmental regulations and resist the notion of a CDU-Green government. In an interview last weekend with the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper, the chairman of the Association of Family Businesses, Lutz Goebel, said he'd rather see Germany led by a coalition of the SPD, Greens and the Left Party.

"That would mean four horrible years," Goebel said. "But afterward, the conservatives would go back to emphasizing the free-market economy, and the AfD would have disappeared."

The past animosity between conservatives and left-wing environmentalists still exerts a strong influence on German politics. The CDU's more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, has traditionally taken a dim view of the Greens, and many Greens still see conservatives, particularly Bavarian conservatives, as their natural enemies.

"I think in segments of both parties, perhaps more so among the Greens than within the CDU, the perceived incompatibilities outweigh actual policy issues," Reiter told DW.

Still, with many experts predicting that the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) could take 20 percent of the vote or more, Germany's next election is extremely difficult to call. Rieter said he thinks that it may require three parties to form a governing coalition. And that could see conservatives and Greens making common cause, even if many in the parties' respective grassroots would prefer very different bedfellows.