In pandemic times, public health takes precedence over the wellbeing of the planet, as Germany’s Greens have had to learn the hard way. With Covid-19 shoring up electoral sympathies around a crisis-seasoned Angela Merkel, the buoyant upstarts in opposition have lost much of the momentum they had built up over the last 12 months.
And yet, paradoxically, the environmental party’s chances of entering government in 2021 have never looked greater.
The German Greens, who have been continuously represented in parliament since 1983 and formed a government with the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD) between 1998 and 2005, have renewed their profile and electoral hopes over the last two years.
Under the leadership duo Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, in charge since January 2018, Die Grünen have sought to do away with the image of a stubbornly single-issue protest party in favour of that of a pragmatic consensus-builder with expertise in steering society through not just the climate crisis but wider societal and demographic shifts.
A recently redrafted party programme ties the Greens’ fortunes to “ecological modernity” and tries to banish old luddite tendencies. Genetic engineering, for example, is described in the programme not just as a risk but also an opportunity.
A unified and consistent line during the fractious fallout from the 2015 refugee crisis and the grassroots Friday for Futures movement buoyed the new Greens to unseen heights: last summer the party achieved historic gains in the European parliamentary election and challenged Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for the top spot in national polls.
But the coronavirus pandemic once again relegated the Greens to the status of a support act.
Broadly supportive of the government’s lockdown measures, the party has struggled to make itself heard from the opposition benches. Even though the Greens form coalition governments in 11 of Germany’s 16 federal states, or Länder, electoral reward for the country’s comparatively competent pandemic management has above all fallen to the conservative CDU.
The co-leader Habeck’s pitch, put forward in his 2016 book Wer wagt, beginnt (Who Dares Begins), is that the old left-right axis is making way for a new scale of open and closed political systems, and that the Greens are best placed to address challenges that fall outside orthodox creeds of political faith.
But during a pandemic in which the debate about open and closed systems has shrunk down to arguments about degrees of economic shutdown, the Greens have been able to make few incisive interventions. Wolfgang Merkel, a political scientist, says the key questions of the coronavirus recovery period, too, are likely to lie outside Green comfort zones.
“Corona has shown us that the politics of wealth distribution still matter, and that is a question where other parties find it more natural to provide answers than the Greens,” says Merkel, an academic at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
The pandemic has shown up a social division between those who can afford to work from home and those forced to risk exposing themselves to the virus on the assembly line and the supermarket till, says Merkel. The German Greens, a party with a disproportionately high number of academics among its members and supporters, may struggle to present itself as a neutral broker.
“The Green party spent a lot of time and effort building up a comprehensive narrative about modernity and change”, says Matthias Riegel, a political strategist who coordinated the Green party’s victorious campaign for the premiership of the wealthy southern state of Baden-Württemberg. “At the beginning of the year we thought we were already in the middle of that narrative. Now we have come to realise it’s a story that is only just beginning.”
In spite of the coronavirus, the Green vote in polls has only dipped and not collapsed: most surveys still show the party at 17-20% of the vote, second behind the CDU, which is a vast improvement on the meagre 8.9% at federal elections in 2017.
Environmental concerns remain a priority for the German public: in a survey by the pollster Infratest Dimap from 2 July, 50% of participants thought the German government should prioritise climate protection rather than the global pandemic during the rotating presidency of the EU council. “The climate hasn’t dropped off the agenda,” said Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier.
While Covid-19 has boosted support for Angela Merkel’s CDU to a three-year high, polls still foresee Germany’s conservatives requiring a coalition partner to obtain a governing majority at the next elections, expected to be held in autumn 2021.
Appetite for another power-sharing deal with the Social Democrats remains low following a lacklustre second term in a “grand coalition” forged by necessity rather than enthusiasm. And the collapse of querulous talks over a coalition between the CDU, the Greens and the pro-business FDP in 2017 has dampened enthusiasm for three-way coalitions in general, not just among the conservatives but also the Greens.
For the moment, polls do not predict a sufficient majority for a power-sharing deal between the Greens, the SPD and the leftwing Die Linke, though the so-called “R2G” option is likely again rear its head in the run-up to the next elections, the first in postwar German history without the incumbent chancellor on the ballot.
If Merkel’s current high popularity ratings stand up until the end of her chancellorship, the onus on a successor will be to continue rather than break with her legacy – which includes liberalising the CDU to the extent that a pact with the Greens looks like a logical conclusion rather than breaking a taboo.
Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen, two old Merkel allies in the running for the party leadership, were both members of a circle of young liberal conservatives who sought a dialogue with the Green party as early as the 1990s, known as the “pizza connection” because key early meetings were held in an Italian restaurant.
The Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, whose proactive decision-making has seen him emerge as the unofficial frontrunner to lead the conservatives into the next election once Merkel steps down, boosted his environmental credentials before state elections in 2018, calling for climate protection to be enshrined in the German constitution and the introduction of strict insect protection laws.
Even the veteran Christian Democrat Friedrich Merz, supposedly the candidate of choice for conservative hardliners, has softened his rhetoric in recent weeks. Merz told Der Spiegel it was possible that a coalition with the Greens would emerge as the only “stable option”.
He said the two parties were not as much of an odd couple as they looked. “Black [the traditional colour of the CDU] and green has long been around the breakfast table in many middle-class families.”