The Greens could score record results in Sunday's elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony. But they'll have to contend with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany.
A cycle tour through a nature reserve: The Greens' campaign trail could not be more cliched. But, on this rainy Monday in Hoyerswerda, in the eastern German state of Saxony, supporters aren't letting stereotypical notions stop them from spreading their message. And leading this group is Robert Habeck, deep in discussion with a voter.
Habeck is one of the leaders of the Greens. Together with co-leader Annalena Baerbock, he has been touring the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg ahead of Sunday's regional elections, sometimes traveling by bike, sometimes campaigning on market squares.
Polls put the Greens over 10%
In both Saxony and Brandenburg, the Greens won almost 6% in the last state parliament elections in 2014. According to the latest polling, the party could double these results in both states on September 1.
"At the beginning of the year, everyone was still saying: 'Yeah, good approval ratings, all well and good, but in Brandenburg and Saxony you're going to get a beating, '" Habeck told DW on the sidelines of the campaign tour." Maybe we'll see the opposite happen now."
In recent years the party has distanced itself from the cliche of the cycling environmentalist party, which sees election campaigns as a leisurely outing. Party members no longer hand out sunflowers at election booths; instead, the party symbol is prominently featured on a trendy banner stand next to the cardboard stools on which audience members can take a seat while they ask candidates questions in a relaxed atmosphere.
There has been a great response to their campaign, Habeck said. Even in small towns like Zwickau, population just over 90,000, the candidates were able to draw around 400 spectators. Habeck described how in Dresden, a couple hundred people had to be sent away from an event due to overcrowding.
In Saxony and Brandenburg, Habeck and his party are competing against another east German cliche. Here, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) could for the first time become the strongest power in a German state parliament — especially in Brandenburg, where they are virtually neck-and-neck with the governing center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Mainstream parties such as Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democrats are losing their grip on voters. But the Greens want to show that these elections aren't only about the rise of the right-wing AfD.
Providing answers, and not just to climate issues
"Zapłata dyrbi wjetša być hač dźěra" is written on a Greens campaign poster — "The patch has to be bigger than the hole." It's a proverb of the Sorbs, a recognized national minority who live in the Saxon border region.
The image above the slogan is a picture of Schwarze Pumpe (which also translates to "black bicycle pump"), one of the last remaining lignite-fired power plants in Lusatia. It's located directly on the border of the two states, where voters will be going to the ballot box on Sunday.
In Brandenburg alone, 40,000 employees are still directly or indirectly dependent on coal mining and energy production. Germany is planning to phaseout the coal industry by 2038 at the latest, but the governments in Berlin, Potsdam and Dresden have not yet been able to give locals a definitive answer as to their future prospects.
"People are in search of answers," said Wolfram Günther, one of two top candidates for the Greens in Saxony. "We have the answers to their questions." These include not only the compatibility of ecology and job security after the coal phaseout, but other matters.
"We hold political positions that used to be held by other parties, that used to be a matter of course in this republic," said Habeck. "Things like the fact that our social market economy should serve the people, and that out-of-control capitalism should not prevail, and that the goal of Germany's foreign policy must be to strengthen Europe."
Green history in East Germany
That, of all things, an environmentalist party is gaining popularity in eastern Germany alongside right-wing populists is certainly extraordinary. But the success of today's Greens is rooted in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
There were environmentalist parties on both sides of the wall then: Greens in the West, and Bündnis 90 in the East. In the first joint elections in reunited Germany in 1990, the West German Greens failed to secure the necessary 5% of votes to enter the Bundestag, while Bündnis 90 made it into parliament. In 1993, the two parties merged to form Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens), and to this day they honor their different origins with a double name.
The newfound success of the Greens in eastern Germany is, therefore, not a complete surprise. In Thuringia, where voters go to the polls on October 27, they have been governing in a coalition led by the socialist Left Party and the SPD since 2014. In Saxony-Anhalt, they currently govern with the CDU and the SPD.
The possible election successes in Brandenburg and Saxony could also provide momentum for the next federal elections, and a chance for the Greens to lead the federal government — and a potential German chancellor in Habeck.
So far, the Greens leader has not wanted to give a clear answer on his future ambitions, but on this rainy Monday, he revealed a tiny bit more than usual. "You can ask the question," he said, "but it's too early to say."
Michaela Küfner contributed to this report.Every day, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up for the newsletter here.