The Surprising Strength of the Greens

Niko Switek

University of Washington

Niko Switek is currently DAAD Visiting Assistant Professor at the Henry M. Jackson School for International Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. He received his PhD from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. His research interests focus on political parties and party systems as well as on coalition politics. He wrote extensively about the German Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the green party family in Western Europe. In addition, he worked on parties on European level (Europarties) and just recently compiled a volume on fictional TV series about politics.

Inspecting the German Greens in the election year 2021

Current opinion polls place the German Alliance 90/The Greens well above 20 percent, clearly in front of the Social Democrats and not that far from the Christian Democrats occupying the first place. This elevated position is somewhat surprising considering the last federal election result in 2017 of 8.9 percent, which made the Greens the smallest group in the Bundestag. Is this simply a consequence of the enduring weakness of the Social Democrats in combination with a renewed salience of climate change? Or is this driven by other factors, signaling a more extensive transformation of the German party system?

Sub- and supranational popularity

One reason that speaks for a more sustained rise of the party is the election results on other levels. Since their foundation, the German Greens – true to their grassroots ideology – have typically achieved better results in the Bundesländer, but especially in the last decade, they have seen some truly impressive election successes. Of course, the 32.6 percent result in the March 2021 election in Baden-Württemberg is an outlier and driven by the popular Green minister-president Winfried Kretschmann, but there have been other strong results placing the party in a range from 17 to 24 percent (e.g. Bavaria, Hesse, Bremen, Hamburg). We see a similar picture with the European Parliament elections, where the Greens typically outperformed their federal results and in 2019 even managed to relegate the SPD to third place. The situation is different in the east German states, where the Greens have a harder time without the loyal following they had gained from the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s and an overall smaller postmaterialist share in the electorate. For quite some time the Greens struggled to pass the electoral thresholds, but they did manage to stabilize themselves, albeit at a low level.

Coalition flexibility

The situation in the eastern states indicates a second reason for the current strength of the Greens: their newfound coalition flexibility. In Berlin and Thuringia, they are part of coalitions with the Social Democrats and the Left party, while in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt they prop up formerly grand coalitions of SPD and CDU. They exhibit similar flexibility in the west German states, where they are willing and able to coalesce with all other parties (except with the AfD). This puts them in a strategically comfortable position that only the SPD shares. Beyond the ability to shape state politics, this means an influence on policymaking on a national level, where participation in eleven state governments effectively translates into a potential veto majority in the Bundesrat.

This flexibility is the result of an intentional reorientation after the end of the SPD-Green federal government in 2005. Part of this strategy was the opening up in both directions of the spectrum so that both factions in the Greens could stomach this extension of coalition options. Especially for alliances bridging the camp cleavage to the center-right Union and FDP, it was very helpful that the Greens were typically able to achieve considerable concession from their partners. Ultimately this laid the groundwork for the Greens to conduct talks with Union and FDP after the 2017 federal election, where the party base would not cry foul and the experiences in the states helped to tackle policy differences.

These negotiations also illustrate another reason the Greens could enter talks without pushback: there were no other feasible options. This was the case in 2017, where the reluctance of the SPD to continue a grand coalition made Jamaica (Black-Green-Yellow, referring to the parties’ colors also on the Jamaican flag) the only alternative. But with stronger polling numbers and a more influential position, the Greens now move into a position to choose between different constellations, which also, however, revives dormant intraparty conflicts. The election in Baden-Württemberg showcases this: Minister-President Kretschmann campaigned with an explicit centrist-pragmatic position, which subliminally implied a continuation of the incumbent Green-CDU government. The party leadership of the regional branch, in contrast, saw potential for more substantial climate policies with the SPD and FDP, leading to fierce intraparty disputes (which Kretschman ultimately settled in his favor).

Strong, cooperative leadership

The diverging positions of the two dominant intraparty factions (Realos/Reformer vs. leftists) point to a third factor for the persistent influence of the Greens. The party is currently chaired by a strong leadership duo (Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck), that enjoys high popularity within and beyond the party. This is rather unusual for the Green Party, which started as a grassroots movement and had intentionally weakened its party chairs. The idea of collective leadership was meant to prevent the establishment of a single influential leader. In practice, party congresses often elected representatives of the factions who pursued a strategy to represent their group and not to integrate the whole party. The current leadership belongs to the same faction and also exhibits less imbalance than previous teams. Apparently, they successfully established routines to reduce competition and work together effectively. Pressure comes from the requirements of the political system at large because in the end there can only be one chancellor and therefore only one chancellor candidate. This is somewhat a litmus test to see if the cooperative leadership style survives.

The gamble of going left

These three points speak for a substantial strength of the party that could indeed signify a changing of the guard in the left spectrum of the German party system despite potential internal difficulties. A final caveat concerns the party’s election platform. The leadership just a few weeks ago presented the draft of the manifesto, which appears to take a sharp left turn. It calls for the suspension of balanced budgets to allow for certain public investments; advocates for a wealth tax and an increase of the top income tax rate; and it pleads for a reform of the Hartz-laws, a very symbolic set of labor reforms that the Greens themselves had implemented as part of their SPD-Green government. This resembles a distinct left stance on socioeconomic issues and deviates from the centrist catch-all approach of the new basic program of 2020. This seems to be a similar script to 2013 where the Greens campaigned on raising taxes and ultimately failed to realize the potential shown in the polls. Yet, considering the Greens’ elevated position currently, this could also correspond to an aggressive strategy of the party to claim the leadership in the left spectrum and challenge the SPD and the Left in questions of social justice. It remains to be seen how the voters react to this proposal.

The Greens have shifted into a central position in the German party system, which was not simply a consequence of changing structural conditions but also a result of strategic behavior. Even without a Chancellor Baerbock or Habeck, it is likely that the Greens will be a member of the next federal government. Judging from the colorful subnational landscape quite a few different constellations are imaginable.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.