Green Party candidates had got used to verbal abuse on the campaign trail in Bavaria, but even they were shocked by what happened at an event in Neu-Ulm in mid-September, when lead candidates Katharina Schulze and Ludwig Hartmann had a rock thrown at them. That was, Schulze told reporters in Munich earlier this week, "a depressing low point."
No one was hurt in the incident, and the suspect was quickly arrested at the scene. State prosecutors said the 44-year-old man was under the influence of alcohol and a member of what a spokesman called "the COVID-measure-critics-scene."
Schulze appears at three to five campaign events daily and insisted that such abuse was an exception. Sometimes events get disrupted, she said, but she has seen the same hecklers in different places and suspects there's a small group of organized activists who follow them around.
Nevertheless, the Neu-Ulm incident illustrated the overheated state of political debate in Germany and the relentless vitriol thrown at the Green Party online and in the right-wing media in recent weeks.
Schulze blamed other candidates: "I think our political rivals like to pour oil into the fire like to kindle things," Schulze said. "The other thing is that we're experiencing democracy being attacked from various sides everywhere. Now we're seeing that in Germany."
Towns vs. country
Germany's Green Party typically performs best among the well-educated in urban areas. That makes things difficult for the Bavarian Greens because Germany's largest state has a lot of rural voters, who are traditionally skeptical of the ecologist party.
Those voters have been further alienated by policies of the center-left federal government coalition, which the Green Party is part of, that are often presented as harmful to countryside lifestyles.
A new draft law to replace fossil fuel heating systems , for instance, led many property-owning Bavarian voters to fear they would no longer be allowed to use wood to heat their homes, which would mean costly renovations. Hoping to head off the inevitable backlash, the Bavarian Greens declared in April that they had persuaded Green Party Economy Minister Robert Habeck to revise his heating law to allow people to burn wood.
Meanwhile, Ludwig Hartmann accused Bavarian politicians of mimicking the tactics of right-wing populists worldwide by creating a false conflict between urban and rural voters, something he characterized as "a fatal development." Bavaria's unique strength, he argued, has always been that economic strength is not concentrated in its cities, so the interests of cities like Munich, where the Green Party is strong, are in fact aligned with those of rural areas.
Now, he complained, every debate was being turned into an argument between city and country. That happened recently when a Green politician called on Bavaria to expand its water protection zones — the agricultural industry immediately rejected this, as it would mean reducing the amount of chemical fertilizer they could use.
"Now it's being said that the water is just for the cities," said Hartmann. "We don't want that kind of debate here. We need each other."
Despite these attempts at moderation, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the center-right party that still dominates Bavaria, has declared the Green Party a pariah.
CSU leader and Bavaria's Premier Markus Söder has vehemently ruled out a coalition with the environmentalists, and his interviews regularly paint the Greens as the party that wants to legalize cannabis while banning sweets for children and sausages for adults.
"The Greens live in a world of fantasy and prohibition," he told the Bild newspaper in March. "They are the number one party of prohibition: Bans on meat, firecrackers, car washing, advertising and balloons are just a small selection of their plans. Ultimately, they want a different republic and to re-educate the Germans. But most people don't want to dance to the green tune."
And yet, Bavaria's Green candidates Schulze and Hartmann remain bullishly optimistic that a coalition with the conservative CSU is still possible. "If there's one thing you can rely on, it's Söder changing his mind," Hartmann insisted, before suggesting that the CSU's commitment to his current coalition with the populist Free Voters was just a campaign tactic.
Söder does indeed have a history of wearing different political costumes as expediency dictates. In 2020, the Bavarian premier had himself photographed embracing a tree while pledging to plant 30 million new ones in the state. Even in his speech on Monday, in between vilifying Berlin and its "out-of-touch" politicians, Söder emphasized that he understood the threat of climate change, illustrating his point with the very Bavarian image of the snow disappearing on Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze.
And younger CSU voters appreciate that. Among Söder's audience in Ebersberg was Daniel Tibursky, a new, 15-year-old recruit to the conservative youth organization Junge Union, who said that environmental campaigns like Fridays for Future had affected CSU policy in the past few years.
"It's good to see our state premier explaining that Bavaria is so strong and stable thanks to the CSU," he told DW. "Of course, we want to become climate neutral, which is very important for my generation, but we have to do it with a clear head."
Despite the anti-Green aggression from all conservative stripes — from the CSU to the Free Voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)— the antipathy towards the Greens in Bavaria may not be as deep as the stone-throwing incident in Neu-Ulm might imply.
The Bavarian Greens are currently polling at around 14-15%, vying for second place with the right-wing populist Free Voters. That result would be below the spectacular high the Greens achieved at the 2018 Bavarian election (17.6%) but still well above the single-figure results the party had to content itself with in every other Bavarian election before then.
That is why Schulze remains so upbeat: "There's still a lot to come from us!"
Edited by Rina Goldenberg
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