The German federal election is on 26 September, and the Greens have been second to the Christian Democrats (CDU) in polls over most of the past year. At one point they were even the frontrunners. Quite a change since the last election, in 2017, when they were the smallest of the six parties that made it into the parliament.
No party is anywhere near getting a majority in its own right, so another coalition government is inevitable after September. Would a Greens prime minister make for big changes? We have to look at the history of the Greens to answer that question.
When the Greens stormed onto the state and federal political stages in Germany in the early 1980s, they were a breath of fresh air. Their famous slogan in the 1990 federal election was “Everyone’s talking about Germany. We talk about the weather”. But their appeal was not due only to environmentalist concerns about pollution.
The party’s roots were in the radical movements of the 1960s and the militant anti-war and anti- nuclear campaigns of the 1970s. The Greens and their regional forerunners sought to complement grassroots initiatives, including for environmental protection, social justice, gay rights and the legalisation of cannabis. They asserted: “We will not participate in a government which pursues the [current environmentally, ecologically and politically] destructive course”.
Early party members and leaders included graduates of 1960s student anarchist and 1970s Maoist groups but also some conservativeas well as right-wing, “blood and soil” environmentalists. The far right was quickly driven out. But there was soon a prolonged factional struggle between “Fundis” (leftist fundamentalists) and “Realos” (conservative realists) over a range of policies and whether or not to participate in coalition governments. Among the leading Fundis were former anarchists Joschka Fischer and a hero of the 1968 student movement in Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, along with former Maoists Reinhard Bütikofer and Winfried Kretschmann.
The Realos won. The focus on parliamentary politics and “exercising power” by entering into governments propelled the German Greens, as it has the Australian Greens, to the right.
They were the junior partner in a federal coalition under the Social Democratic (SPD) Prime Minister Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005. Fischer was deputy prime minister and foreign minister. The “anti-war” Greens voted for German participation in a war for the first time since 1945—the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. Then, in 2001, German troops were dispatched to fight in Afghanistan.
The shift to the right was not confined to foreign policy. The Red-Green coalition was also responsible for Germany’s decisive turn to neoliberal economic policy, in the Agenda 2010 package. This was a multi-front attack on German workers.
In 2003 and 2004, the coalition cut the lowest income tax rate by 4.5 percent (from 19.5 to 15 percent), but cut the rate on the highest income earners by 6.5 percent (from 48.5 to 42 percent). It reduced public provision of health care and forced people to pay for part of the cost of medicines and visits to doctors. Together with the SPD, the Greens also reduced pensions. The associated Hartz labour market “reforms” legalised forms of insecure work for the first time and slashed unemployment benefits.
Since 2005, the Greens have been out of office at the federal level. But they have participated in ruling coalitions in eleven of Germany’s sixteen states. Their choices of coalition partners have been very promiscuous. The Greens are currently junior partners in a coalition with the Left Party and SPD in three states, junior partners with the CDU and SPD in another two, junior partners with the CDU or SPD in a further two, and junior partners in a coalition with the CDU or SPD and the right-wing, free market Free Democrats in two states.
The Greens are the senior partner in a coalition with the CDU in Baden-Württemburg. Former Maoist, then Greens Realo, Winfried Kretschmann became the first Greens premier of a German state in 2011. Initially he led a coalition with the Social Democrats. The SPD’s decline led the Greens to switch to the CDU as their junior partner in 2016.
Baden-Württemburg is one of Germany’s most prosperous states, making the Greens’ conservative budgetary policies easier to bear. The state party has favoured a tightening of Germany’s political asylum rules. Kretschmann offered Baden-Württemburg as a site for the disposal of nuclear waste. By abstaining in the vote, the Greens parliamentary group recently allowed the candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to be appointed to the state’s constitutional court.
The conservative news magazine Der Spiegel in 2016 observed that the Greens in Baden-Württemburg were “bourgeois, locally rooted and so ecologically calibrated that the owner of a Porsche Cayenne no longer even thinks that there is a contradiction between their choice of a means of transport and their decision in the voting booth”. The Greens won votes in the elections earlier this year at the expense of the CDU.
Overall, Greens policies have shifted to the right and the party has broadened its voting base to wider sections of the white-collar working and middle classes, beyond those interested in significant social and lifestyle alternatives, though not to people on low incomes.
At the federal level, the Greens have benefited from being in opposition to the “Grand Coalition” of the CDU (and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), led by Prime Minister Angela Merkel, and the SPD between 2005 and 2009 and again since 2013.
Although still the largest party, the CDU has lost a lot of support lately after fifteen years in office under Merkel, who is retiring. Her replacement, Armin Laschet, is relatively unknown outside Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany’s largest state, where he is the premier.
Since Schröder’s hard turn to neoliberalism in the early 2000s and following years as the junior partner in the Grand Coalition with the CDU-CSU, the Social Democrats have been discredited among sections of their core working-class and trade union base. On 12 August, SPD co-chair Norbert Walter-Borjans denounced train drivers striking over pay and conditions for alienating customers.
The Left Party has more traditional social democratic policies and an almost exclusively parliamentary orientation, but lacks the support of the bulk of the trade union bureaucracy and has been plagued by the capitulation to racism of its most prominent politician, Sahra Wagenknecht. The Free Democrats, with their dogmatic free enterprise ideology and wavering between far-right and liberal social policy, have always had limited appeal, especially beyond the self-employed middle class, although they have also benefitted from opposition to the Grand Coalition. And the ability of the AfD, set up in 2013, to expand its support has been limited by counter-mobilisations against racist movements on the street—out of which it grew early on—internal conflicts between its fascist and merely hard-right wings, and its COVID denialism.
Unlike the Left Party and the AfD, the Greens have been united around their generally conservative program and were well placed to expand support in the middle of the political spectrum, at the expense of the centre-right CDU and centre-left SPD, and compared to the limited radicalism of the Left Party and of the far-right AfD at the extremes.
The federal Greens are chaired by Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. In April, after Baerbock was selected as the party’s candidate for prime minister in the upcoming elections, the Greens briefly nudged ahead of the CDU in opinion polls for the second time since mid-2019. Support declined, however, after right-wing media beat-ups over minor errors in her curriculum vitae and a tax return, and a spurious accusation of plagiarism.
Baerbock has never had a real job, going straight from university to a series of staffer jobs with Green politicians before entering the federal parliament in 2013. Her husband coordinated contact between the Greens and big business before moving on to the better paid job of senior expert, corporate affairs, at DHL, the freight and logistics giant.
The Greens’ main federal election policies this year include bumping up the highest income tax rate, which they helped Schröder’s government reduce. Similarly, they propose raising welfare payments that the Red-Green coalition cut. The Greens want to make German citizenship far more accessible for immigrants and automatic for people born in the country. The party has watered down its earlier policy of completely ending legal regulation of women’s right to abortions. Both the European Union and NATO are at the centre of Greens foreign policy, along with willingness to send the German armed forces abroad on “humanitarian” missions. They promise to end coal-fired electricity by 2030, instead of the current government’s target of 2038.
Overall, the Greens now have a well-established capitalist approach. In their 2021 federal election program, they talk in terms of giving the market “a social-ecological framework”, “promoting entrepreneurial spirit, competition and ideas”, making “financial markets more stable and sustainable” and “budgeting soundly, far-sightedly and fairly”. In other words, they are as devoted to managing capitalism as the other parties in the German parliament, differing only in the extent to which they recognise that climate change and environmental destruction are a threat to profits.
All the recent opinion polls suggest that the German government after the election will be a coalition led by the CDU-CSU. It may include the Greens. Whatever the outcome, a predicted Greens advance over their performance last time will only bring a gust of stale, middle-of-the-road wind.