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Thirty somethings

January 13, 2010

The Green party started life as a rebellious child, so at 30, how has the party matured with age? Deutsche Welle spoke to Green party MP and climate policy spokesman Hermann Ott.

Hermann Ott gives a speech at a Green party conference in Niederrhein
Ott says the Greens' heyday is yet to comeImage: Die Grünen

Hermann Ott is a member of parliament for Germany's Greens. A lawyer by training, Ott is the party's climate spokesman and has been involved in climate policy for nearly two decades – even serving as an advisor to then Environment Minister Angela Merkel in the 1990s.

Over the past three decades, Germany's Greens have been a poster child for ecological movements in other industrialized countries, showing that it was possible to move from the peripheries of power to the center, though they now occupy the opposition benches. So why have they been successful in Germany and are they already a spent force?

Deutsche Welle: When the Greens were formed in 1980 they grew out of a protest movement. What was the main impetus for their formation?

Hermann Ott: The roots of the Greens in Germany are manifold. The dominant currency certainly was the environmental movement, because there was absolutely no representation of this issue in parliament at that time with the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats or the Liberals.

Accompanying that was the anti nuclear movement. But other issues like peace and the women’s movement were also very strong. These strands all came together and demanded a different policy model, a different kind of party and assembled under the green label.

Why has the Green movement taken root so strongly in Germany? The Greens have had much more success here than in other western countries such as Britain, France or the USA?

A German bomber from World War II
WW2 led to a rebellious attitude in the 60s that helped spur the GreensImage: AP

One of the main reasons is that Germany fought an unjust war, the Second World War. Many of those who were young in the 1970s accused their parents, there was a real attitude of "why did you let this happen? Never let that happen again, speak up."

That’s why the young people at the time spoke up and said if our planet is being destroyed, our kids will ask us "why didn’t you do anything?" I think that's the main reason why the environmental movement was stronger and more successful in Germany than in almost all other countries.

The party started out as an anti-establishment movement. Since then they’ve entered government both regionally and nationally, they’ve taken part in controversial decisions like agreeing to the NATO mission in Kosovo in the 1990s. Have the Greens become part of the establishment they once protested against?

You can't be in this structure for 30 years without becoming part of it somehow. This is only natural. You'd have to be extremely fanatic to stay on the outside. The reason I’m a member of the Greens; they are the only party in Germany that is not structurally conservative. We are not profiting from the existing economic interests, all other parties are.

Energy policy for example: It’s difficult for others to distance themselves from coal. For the left- wing parties they have interests in the miners and trade unions and there are many local politicians on the boards of these companies. In this sense it is the Greens that can change society and can change the world because its stakes are in the future not in the present.

The internal make-up of the party has changed quite a lot. These days you are much more likely to get votes from urban professionals rather than former hippies…

Society has changed a lot and so have the Greens. Our voters are on average more educated than those of all other parties which means many of them are at university or have academic professions, lawyers, doctors and so on.

But other German political parties have also changed, we now have conservative parties in Germany that champion green causes and we’ve got the so-called ‘climate chancellor’ under Angela Merkel, are the Greens still relevant?

It is true that green rhetoric is appearing everywhere and I don't want to underplay this, it is definitely a first step. But when you look at the actual policies, you don't see that the green rhetoric makes any difference.

There was a press release just recently by the minister for agriculture which said there will be no regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for agriculture because its only contributes six percent (of Germany's carbon dioxide emissions). If you are serious about climate policy, then all areas have to contribute, otherwise we can't make it.

Why do the Greens in Germany deliberately chose to have multiple heads of the party? Isn't there a high risk of diluting the party’s image?

Female Green MP Krista Sager gives speech
Ott claims the Green party are responsible for more women in politicsImage: picture alliance / dpa

No that's a success story. I am very sure that we wouldn't have a female chancellor now if it hadn't been for the Greens. We introduced the gender proportions in leading positions that has lead to the fact that women are actually more than 50% in all elected posts and at least 50% in the organization.

This has been a model for other parties who have less strict rules of gender equality, but are trying to get there, at least for the more left-wing parties.

When the Greens were in power under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, your vice chancellor, Joschka Fischer, was for a time Germany's most popular politician. He was charismatic and well respected overseas. Do you need another Joschka?

We actually have much better electoral results than we had with Joschka Fischer. He was very important for the party, because he was so popular every woman and man on the street could relate to him and liked him because he was disrespectful of old traditions and was a humorous and witty person.

In the end it is not one man or woman alone that can make the difference, it is the party, the members and the people that sympathize with the ideas. I am biased of course, but if you look at the people who work in the party, they are the most committed, well -educated and able people you can find and that I think is our main asset

At the last federal election, the Greens achieved their best result ever winning over 10% of the vote, yet they still ranked 5th amongst the parties – does this kind of Pyrrhic victory mean the Greens are heading toward eventual oblivion?

The current economic recession made it difficult for ecological issues to be at the forefront of voter's minds, but we will see the results of climate change in the coming years very clearly, we will see the effects of scarce resources, especially oil. This means that environmental issues will come to the forefront.

The main question is how do we manage a global economy that can do without ever-more throughput of energy and resources? That is the question and that's why I predict that the main time for the Greens is yet to come.

But this is your party's home turf - why have the greens failed to capture more of vote?

I was actually surprised we got so many votes, 10.7% in the last election. Think of the unpleasant truths that the Greens do not cease to announce: We have to change our society, our economic system, we have to get away from growth based economic systems.

I do predict, however, that this is not the end yet, that we will reach 15% in elections to come. But we should not forget that in order to be effective as a party we have to be avant-garde, we cannot be mainstream, we cannot be everybody's darling, we have to point the finger where the problems lie, and that will always be unpopular with large parts of the population.

Interview: Nathan Witkop
Editor: Anke Rasper