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How green are Germany's Greens?

Irene Banos Ruiz
November 5, 2018

The Greens have made huge gains in two recent state elections in Germany. But to what extent is the success of this political party connected to the environment?

Annalena Baerbock of the Greens holds up a green eagle at a delegates conference in Hanover
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte

Due to factors including Dieselgate and slogging plans for a coal phaseout, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's image as a green leader is not having its finest moment. Meanwhile, Germany's Greens are gaining ever more popularity. 

At the end of October, Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) performed 10 percentage points poorer in elections in the German state of Hesse, the country's financial hub. Yet the Greens were the real winners, with 19.8 percent of the vote — a gain of 9 percent from the previous election and their best-ever result in the state.

Two weeks before that, Merkel's ally in the southern state of Bavaria — the Christian Social Union (CSU) — lost its absolute majority in elections, in a record-low result. 

The Greens came in as the state's second-strongest party, with 17.5 percent of the votes — nearly double the share compared to the 2013 elections in Bavaria. 

But what are the keys to the Greens' success in Germany? And how much of that has to do with the environment? 

Infographic Bavaria election results by party 2018

Favorable political context 

Voters are discontent with Germany's ruling coalition, and other parties are benefiting from that, said Michael Stoiber, head of the comparative policy department at the University of Hagen in Germany. 

Read more: The surprising success of Germany's Green party

According to pollster Infratest dimap, about 30 percent of voters in Hesse chose the party as an alternative out of disappointment with other parties. The Greens are a good option for those who are keen for a change, but who don't align with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. 

And given infighting among coalition partners, voters see in the Greens a stable party with clear values. 

"We have clearly stated what we want and what we don't. That's what counts for voters," Bettina Hoffmann, spokesperson for environmental policy of the Green parliamentary group, told DW.

In Hesse, voters rewarded the Greens for quiet government work, Hoffmann said. 

There, the party won over some 100,000 votes each from SPD and CDU. In Bavaria, those figures were 200,000 and 170,000, respectively. 

Politicians from the Greens during a protest against brown coal mining in Germany, 2017
Green politicians have expressed consistent positions, including for a coal phaseout in GermanyImage: REUTERS/T. Schmuelgen

The Greens were apparently also the clear favorites for young and first-time voters. Most voters for the Greens in Germany have a higher education degree, live in large cities and belong to the middle class.

Although this profile also fits CDU voters, green voters tend to have a more liberal and modern mindset, Stoiber told DW. They represent a new "green" bourgeoisie.

Yet the party was also able to double their representation in Bavarian rural areas from 7 to 14 percent — due largely to voter discontent with the CSU. 

A vote for the environment 

Having literally formed out of the 1980s anti-nuclear movement in Germany, environmental issues have long been a core element of the Greens' platform.

Beside the favorable political context, voters' growing environmental awareness has naturally also played a role in the rise of the party.

Environmental protection and climate justice are increasingly important for Germans, Patrick Rohde, a policy planning expert with Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), told DW.

Indeed, the environment ranked third in Bavarian voters' decisions, only behind education and housing, Infratest dimap showed. In addition, more than 70 percent of Germans are unhappy with the government's climate policy.

Mass protests in Germany for a coal phaseout or for sustainable agriculture are clear proof of this. 

Infographic: German satisfaction with government policy

In both Bavaria and Hesse, most voters said climate protection is the issue the Greens deal best with. They also believe the party offers the best solutions for the future. Climate protection is seen as a key factor for a good future.

The diesel scandal also played a role among voters. More than 80 percent of Germans disapprove of the government's handling of Dieselgate, which started in 2015.

This has without doubt caused coalition parties to lose voters, Stoiber said.

Changes to come 

"The long, hot, dry summer we experienced this year has convinced many people of the necessity to stop the climate crisis," Angela Dorn, chairwoman of the Greens in Hesse, told DW. 

Read more: Climate change already affecting German farmers

Yet the federal government refuses to do just that — "which is one of the reasons people in Germany are so fed up," she added. 

Infographic: Main competencies of the Greens in Germany 2018

As parties prepare new political programs, polling results have sent a clear message demanding greater climate protection. Rohde called it "a wake-up call."

The Greens are also working on their election program. Core points for the party include demanding a coal phaseout, as well as supporting climate-friendly mobility and sustainable agriculture.

The Greens in Hesse have an ambitious roadmap in place, in which they aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2025. "Hesse wants to be carbon neutral by 2050," Dorn added. 

Now, they have to keep their promises and remain authentic, Rohde concluded. Otherwise, they risk following the CDU and SPD — and disappointing voters.

Whether the Greens' growing popularity ultimately causes other parties to increase ambition around climate protection policies remains to be seen.

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