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Greens eye government amid political turbulence

February 29, 2020

As Germany's largest parties, the center-right CDU and center-left SPD, seem to stagger from one crisis to another, the Greens are more united than ever. How has the environmentally conscious party held itself together?

Robert Habeck & Annalena Baerbock at a German Greens party meeting
Image: Reuters/L. Kuegeler

All of Germany's major political parties, apart from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the environmentally friendly Greens, seem to be in crisis.

The leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) recently quit in frustration. Polling for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has fallen to 13% to14%. The business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) has suffered a blow since the debacle in Thuringia, where one of its candidates was voted in with support from the CDU and the AfD.

Read more: Thuringia AfD fallout: How weak is Germany's CDU?

The Greens, however, are cutting quite a figure on the German political stage. After a period when in-fighting was common, they are united and experiencing a resurgence. The number of members has risen from 65,000 to 100,000 in just three years. Nationwide polls put them in second place after the CDU, with support ranging from 20% to 24%.

Poll from January 2020 showing 23% support for the Greens nationwide

Greens change their tone

"It will be our task, one towards which we are striving, to impart a sense of direction and trust to the country," said Robert Habeck, one of the party's two leaders. These are words that could easily have been spoken by a head of government or president, a significant sign of change from the party that once was mocked for its chaotic nature and not wanting to govern. 

Germany's Greens' future

Habeck's co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, explained what her party thinks people expect from politicians: "Not only the tackling of key problems but the provision of real solutions, even if this means going new ways." It's another statement that sounds like a leader of a party responsible for governing the country, not pointing out the government's faults from the opposition.

Read more: Germany's Green party: How it evolved

The Greens' parliamentary leader, Anton Hofreiter, told DW that "a very decisive period lies ahead. It's about preserving natural resources, about society sticking together, about upholding democratic values and about a steady and united Europe. Our strength at this time is our determination."

"We have to do something now!"

Greens lawmaker Franziska Brantner, who divides her time between Berlin and Heidelberg, told DW that her party was in such a position at the moment because of the "current leadership."

"Everyone feels in good hands with Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock," she said. The two have been co-leaders since the beginning of 2018 when they were both elected with huge majorities at the party conference in Bielefeld. Baerbock garnered a whopping 97 percent of the vote.

A cow in Germany seen in a green field
Climate awareness in Germany has helped the GreensImage: Imago Images/A. Krone

Both leaders have been careful to avoid public shows of disagreement. This was not always the case of their predecessors in a party that has traditionally had two leaders.

Brantner also said climate change's increasing importance in mainstream society is also crucial to the party's support since preserving the environment has always been the Green party's main focus. Brantner said that the general consensus in the many internal debates about climate change is that "something has to be done now."

Return of the veterans

Brantner also told DW that celebrations for the Greens' 40th anniversary in Heidelberg earlier this year was symbolic of the transformation. Many veterans from the early days had come and said they were willing to join the party again, even some who had left in protest after the Greens supported military intervention in the Balkans in the late 1990s.

Rise of Germany's Greens

As society becomes more polarized, the Greens are no longer afraid of governing.

"Only then can there be a real dialogue," explained Brantner. "We will only leave the room when we've really come to an agreement."

Some critics accuse the Greens of avoiding conflict and being too willing to please in their efforts to govern. After an inner-party debate over whether homeopathic medicine should be state subsidized escalated, it will now be resolved by the party's executive committee.

Who will be the chancellor candidate?

Unlike the CDU, which is currently in the throes of choosing who will lead the party and likely claim the role of candidate for the Chancellery in next year's elections, the Greens do not want a fight over who will lead them in the poll.

Both Baerbock and Habeck have avoided the issue in public and Brantner added, "It's absolutely correct not to make a decision yet."

The party will also have to see whether their current support continues and is reflected in election results. Though they won 20.5% in last year's European Parliament elections, the results in three state elections in the former East Germany were more sobering.

Their recent 24% win in Hamburg's state election was their second most successful so far but the Greens always tend to do well in urban centers. In rural regions, particularly in the former east, they still need to catch up.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau