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Why the German Green Party is wilting

Jefferson Chase
May 15, 2017

A lack of hot-button issues and charisma have been dragging the Greens down ahead of national elections. Nonetheless, they may win a share of power - whether the grassroots like it or not.

A 2013 campaign poster for Anja Kofbinger in Berlin slowly peels off its cardboard backing
Image: DW/J. Chase

Ask political analysts why Germany's Green Party is recording its lowest levels of support in public opinion polls in 15 years, and the first explanation you'll get is that the mainstream has adopted many of the positions the Greens once claimed as their own.

In 2011, in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, the Greens briefly polled over 20 percent. In the intervening six years, conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and her grand coalition have gotten Germany to begin entirely phasing out nuclear power. And with nothing to replace their most effective issue, the Greens have sunk to six percent in two polls this week.

"Energy policy isn't a very controversial issue anymore, everyone is for climate protection, and no one has anything against electric automobiles," Hubert Kleinert, a former Green member of the Bundestag and now a professor, told German public radio. "The problem is one of intellectual freshness. The Greens need new issues, interesting issues, not just one that can be checked off (like items on a list). They've already gotten what they want on that front."

There is still plenty to be done on the environmental causes so dear to Green hearts, but there's no one hot-button issue like the nightmare scenario of core meltdown at nuclear power plants. As if to illustrate this challenge on the weekend, Green Party co-chairwoman Katrin Göring-Eckardt used a major newspaper interview mainly to talk about simplifying household waste separation - hardly the stuff to stir passions.

"To a degree, they've certainly become the victims of their own success, and the issues they bring up tend to seem quite small-time and domestic," political scientist Ulrich Sarcinelli told Deutsche Welle. "They're not the hot-button issues right now."

And a lack of politically sexy issues is only one reason the Greens' appeal has wilted.

Well-behaved and faceless

Image is an equally big problem. In the early years after the party was founded in 1980, the Greens caused waves not just with their environmental policies but by showing up with long hair and sneakers in the Bundestag. But it's been a long time since the Greens were considered young mavericks and iconoclasts. Nowadays the Green Party is part of the political establishment. Familiar and perhaps a bit boring.

Seen in this photo is a young Joshka Fischer, later a leading Greens figure
The Greens are no longer the young mavericks they once wereImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"They're too nice, far too well-behaved," Sarcinelli said. "The Greens have become a middle-of-the-road party of consensus for people who can get along with everyone. But today's political culture is different. Voters in the age of Trump and Brexit may be looking for politicians who are far more confrontational."

Sarcinelli adds that if asked, he'd probably have to think twice to name the leaders of the Green Party in his home state. The Greens have historically been wary of charismatic personalities, but that hasn't prevented them from benefiting from highly recognizable individual "stars" like former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Now under the leadership of joint chairs Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir, they've become, in Sarcinelli's mind, "faceless." That's a major disadvantage at a time when celebrity is playing an increasing role in politics.

"The charisma of their leaders is limited," Kleinert said. "We live in a society in which the public changes its mood quickly, and where media charisma has a lot of weight. And the Green team isn't very well chosen in that respect."

Kleinert also complains about the lack of younger figures in the party making themselves heard - Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir are 50 and 51 years of age respectively.

Keeping calm and carrying on

Greens leaders Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt address supporters
Özdemir and Göring-Eckardt are perhaps a touch too niceImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

If the most recent polls are accurate, for the first time since 1980, the Greens face a slight risk of failing to clear the hurdle of five percent of the national vote required to be represented in the Bundestag. 

Nonetheless, Green MP Konstantin von Notz is convinced that his party has the right issues to appeal to voters.

"People want us to take care of protecting the climate, the environment, agricultural reform and citizens' rights," Notz told DW.

But surveys indicate that Germans on the whole are more interested in topics like refugees, terrorism and social equity. And the Greens could well be headed toward the trickiest dilemma in their party's history.

An opportunity and a danger

This graphic depicts the gradual decline of support for the Greens Party from 10.7 percent in 2009 elections to 6 percent in April 2017 polls
The Greens are getting dangerously close to the five percent hurdle

Ironically, despite the Greens' nadir in opinion polls, the party's prospects for a share of political power look a bit better than usual. They're a coveted coalition partner not only by the Social Democrats (SPD) but also potentially by Merkel's CDU-CSU.

Most analysts think the most likely outcome of the national vote will be a continuation of the grand coalition. But with the SPD's popularity declining, decreasing the chance of an exclusively left-wing coalition, one of the next most probable scenarios is an alliance between the CDU, the rejuvenated liberal Free Democrats -  and perhaps the Greens.

"They certainly could (do that)," Kleinert told DW. "They formed that sort of coalition at the local state level."

Some experts think that Merkel secretly hopes for a coalition with the Greens, and the current party heads are known more for political pragmatism than ideological rigor. But an alliance with the conservatives presents as much of a risk as it does an opportunity.

"With Göring-Eckardt and Özdemir they have two leaders who would certainly entertain the idea of a coalition with the CDU," Sarcinelli said. "The question is how well that would go down with the grassroots who usually vote for the party. The risk is that they would lose their motivation to turn out to polling stations if the Greens sent out too many signals of possible coalition with the conservatives."

The Greens' traditional voters trend left, not right, and there is no doubt that an alliance with the CDU would turn many of them off. The Greens will be hard pressed to avoid making a clear statement on their potential coalition partners as September approaches. And if their six-percent showing in some polls is an accurate reflection of their support among the electorate, they have very little margin for error.

Omid Nouripour and Konstantin von Notz were interviewed by Jens Thurau.