Greens Gain in Germany, and the World Takes Notice

Friday, September 2, 2011

By Nicolas Kulash, New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/02/world/europe/02greens.html?pagewanted=...

BERLIN — A string of Green Party victories and strong electoral showings across Germany, from the conservative south to the port cities of the north, are helping to redefine politics among voters who are increasingly losing faith in the more established parties.

The Green Party is poised to extend its march into the mainstream on Sunday when voters go to the polls in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The Greens could, for the first time, win seats in the State Parliament and demonstrate their ability to sustain political momentum.

“Nothing in our political science books has prepared us for this kind of party,” said Josef Joffe, publisher of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, who noted that the Greens have won the culture war on the left over the rusty Social Democrats on issues like gay rights and the integration of immigrants. “I bet if you had a party like this in America, all my rich friends on both coasts would vote for it.”
 
Although their roots are on the left, the Greens are being increasingly embraced by voters on the right, successfully tapping into a German strain of conservationist conservatism by opposing highways and the demolition of old buildings. It has benefited both from the slow collapse of European socialism and the rising awareness of renewable technologies that have brought even once-skeptical businesspeople into the fold.
 
With this potent coalition of voters, the Greens surprised Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party when it took control of the affluent southern state of Baden-Württemberg this spring, which is akin to capturing the Texas statehouse. In the process, the party proved it was a force to be reckoned with in German politics, where one in five voters now say they support the Greens.
 
The German Greens also have served as the spearhead of a global coming out for other Green parties. In Brazil’s presidential election last year, the Green Party candidate won nearly 20 million votes to place third in the first round. The Green Party in Colombia was founded just two years ago, but in 2010 saw its candidate for president place second.
 
Britain’s House of Commons welcomed its first Green Party member after last year’s election, and Australia’s Greens won their first seat in the lower house in 2010. More significantly, the Greens hold nine out of 76 seats in the Australian Senate, giving the party a swing vote and powerful leverage over legislation in the upper house, where no party holds a majority.
 
The global surge has remained under the radar in the United States, for many reasons. In a system dominated by two parties, the Greens have no representatives in Congress or, for that matter, in a single state legislature. The party’s image and electoral success in the United States has been tightly bound to the ultimately doomed presidential bids of Ralph Nader rather than depending on the grass-roots methods used to build the Greens in Germany. The German Greens even have their own local chapter in Washington, and they have served as a model for their political cousins abroad.
 
Gustav Fridolin, one of two leaders of the Swedish Green Party, said he kept a poster from the German Greens’ 2009 parliamentary campaign in his office as inspiration. It reads, “Jobs, jobs, jobs: Only Green helps escape the crisis.”
 
“That important step away from the idea of threatening jobs, threatening development, has been taken in Germany,” Mr. Fridolin said in a recent interview. “The party is a more interesting alternative for larger groups in society, not just for people studying environmental policy at university.”
 
The mass killings in Norway in July riveted attention on the strength of right-wing populist parties across Europe, but particularly in Scandinavia. Yet with far fewer headlines, the Green Party in Sweden won more votes in last year’s parliamentary election than the far-right Sweden Democrats, taking 7.3 percent of the vote compared with 5.7 percent for the nationalists.
 
In Germany, the question is now whether the Greens sustain, or even build, on their recent advances. The party was buoyed by outrage over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, but it has fallen slightly in polls since. Still, the party could serve as a model for the postindustrial left in Europe and, perhaps, around the world.
 
It is a long way from the German party’s founding in 1980, when middle-class voters saw the Greens as radicals, heirs to the 1968 student protest movement or even the left-wing terrorists of the Red Army Faction. “People spat on my father when he went door to door,” said Milena Oschmann, the daughter of leading party members in the city of Kiel, Germany. She now works for the party, splitting her time between Parliament and the local office in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood.
 
Ms. Oschmann, 27, described how the party had played host in Berlin to visiting Greens from Greece, Taiwan and Japan as well as Sweden and Australia. In her sports jacket and ballet slippers, a Sony Vaio laptop balanced on her knees during a local meeting in Neukölln, Ms. Oschmann would be right at home on Capitol Hill. She studied politics in Bremen, Germany, and in London before moving to Berlin, a representative of the new generation of Green politicians who have left the beard-and-sandals stereotype behind.
 
While the Fukushima disaster is often credited with helping the Greens’ surge in Germany, their initial jolt in support in Baden-Württemberg came from the party’s opposition to a multibillion-dollar rail project known as Stuttgart 21 that involved tearing down portions of an old station and downing hundreds of old trees. “They’re covering both sides of the street, serving the deep conservative instincts of Germany for no change,” said Mr. Joffe, the newspaper publisher. “Protecting nature, slowing down growth, slowing down industrialization, is actually a conservative agenda.”
 
In most reliable scientific opinion surveys, the Greens are polling around 20 percent of the vote, nearly twice the 10.7 percent of the votes they won in the 2009 parliamentary election.
 
“In former times I always said the Green Party is the party of dentists’ wives,” said Reinhard Schlinkert, one of the most established political pollsters in Germany. “Now many of the dentists have started voting for them.”
 
But polls are not votes, and opinions can be fickle. The Greens surprised the political establishment by polling ahead of the center-left Social Democrats in some surveys this past spring — and appeared poised to win the Berlin mayoral race, one of the top prizes of German politics. But as the nuclear crisis receded, attention turned to whether they had the personnel and policy credentials to govern a big state like Baden-Württemberg.
 
“Once you’re No. 1, you’re in charge of everything,” Cem Özdemir, one of the party’s two national leaders, said in an interview recently, “and you’re held accountable.”
 

 

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