Germany is heading to the polls for a federal election in September, and an unusual new frontrunner has emerged. It was announced last week that Annalena Baerbock would be the Green candidate for the chancellorship, and now the party’s poll numbers are on fire – they are currently leading with 26% of voting intention, and that momentum would make them likely to lead the next government if it lasted until September. What explains the rise of the Green Party, and what could their potential electoral success mean for Germany and the wider world?
The party, known in Germany as Die Grünen, first entered the Bundestag in 1983, and it was once styled as the rebel of German politics. However, this is the first year that it nominated a candidate for chancellor, framing the narrative that it is ready for governance. Franziska Brantner, a senior Green MP and Baerbock confidante, said: “Our strength isn’t ephemeral, we’ve built it over months and years.” And this is true – the party has benefitted from a global shift towards green ideas, and cemented its reputation with a court win in 2019, throwing out the government’s environmental law for lacking ambition. With actions like these, the Greens have shown they can get things done.
Our strength isn’t ephemeral, we’ve built it over months and years
What explains these numbers – is it proof that Germany is thinking seriously about green issues? Well, yes and no. Many critics note that the party’s success has come as a result of the two major parties – Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – collapsing in recent years. Germany’s response to the refugee crisis, a lengthy lockdown and an ineffective vaccine rollout exposing the weakness of its national bureaucracy have all contributed to significant volatility in the polls. According to Stefan Merz, the director of pollster Infratest Dimap: “After years of very little movement in the hierarchy of Germany’s political parties, there is now a sense that the deck is being reshuffled and we could be on the threshold of a historic moment.”
It’s certainly true that the party has evolved since it won its first state in 2011. When it first entered the Bundestag, its strongest support came from the 18-24 age bracket, but they’ve expanded their support – at the European elections, the Greens were the most popular party among all groups under 45. They’ve shifted to the centre, and have become more politically savvy and comfortably middle-class. It is predominantly white, although it also boasts the second-highest number of delegates with a migrant background. They have consciously tried to avoid talking down to the electorate, seeing that calling yourself virtuous does not win votes. They’re actively working to oppose criticisms that they are the ‘ban party’, looking to regulate and forbid things such as cars, travel and eating habits, and a generally supportive media is aiding them in this goal by heavily promoting Baerbock’s candidacy.
From this strong position, what will they actually do if they win? They would commit Germany to a 70% reduction in domestic carbon emissions by 2030, increase carbon taxes and boost investment into green technologies. They want to expand solar and wind farms, align air travel with the goals of climate neutrality, have only emission-free cars from 2030 and hike prices on meat products. They also propose lifting the ‘debt brake’, a constitutional amendment which severely limits the government’s ability to borrow to finance spending, and boosting welfare payments by 50%.
The collapse of the two major parties and the desire for political change, coupled with the climate crisis and favourable media conditions, have created optimal conditions for the party
But a huge part of their appeal is that they are not solely interested in the environment – they want to balance economic and human rights commitments abroad, taking a more interventionist stance to global politics than Angela Merkel. It would be more critical of China and Russia, and end the nuclear agreement under which the US keeps some nuclear weapons on German soil. It is going against the consensus on migration policy as well as defence – the party wants rich countries that have contributed to climate change to compensate poorer countries that are suffering the effects, and easing outward migration is one approach to this issue. Given that battles over migration have helped facilitate the rise of a prominent far-right party, there are major questions about the viability of this proposal.
Five months is a long time in politics, and if vaccinations shift the conversation back to the economy, there is a feeling that the conservatives could regain ground. But whether they win or not, we have to recognise that the Greens are now a significant force in German politics, and it is very likely that the next government will have an important Green component – especially as the German electoral system favours coalition-building. All eyes will be on these elections. Whilst long-term trends favour the kind of politics that Green parties traditionally advocate, but few have been able to translate this into electoral success. The collapse of the two major parties and the desire for political change, coupled with the climate crisis and favourable media conditions, have created optimal conditions for the party – the Greens will want to capitalise on this shift and drive genuine change.