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‘Surfing the Zeitgeist’: How the Greens won over Germany

Germany's Green party made record gains in the European elections. How has the party achieved this success – and can it continue?

‘Surfing the Zeitgeist’: How the Greens won over Germany
The Greens' co-leader Annalena Baerbock, Maike Schaefer, Sven Giegold and co-leader Robert Habeck on Monday. Photo: DPA

Beaming smiles, hugs, sunflowers and loud cheers: it's a scene that has become the norm during Germany's Green party election night gatherings in recent months.

And the European Parliament vote on Sunday was no different. With 20 percent of the vote, the Greens' double-digit success was historic, pushing them into second position behind the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party the CSU, and sending a clear message from voters that they are demanding change.

But how has the party, which came last in Germany's federal elections in 2017, snagging just 8.9 percent of the vote, become so favourable?

“The Greens are surfing on top of the Zeitgeist,” political scientist Dr Gero Neugebauer told the Local. “Their main issue – climate, the environment – is indeed an issue which has become of interest for a lot of people who may not be supporters of the Greens in other questions, or who said in the past the Greens are too ideological or so on.

“But now these voters are looking outside and saying it's too hot or it's raining too much. They want a party to address climate issues for their future or their children’s future or grandchildren’s future. So they decided to vote Green.”

The Fridays for Future demonstrations, led by young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, have undeniably had an impact on the Green party’s success, prompting many people, including younger generations, to cast their vote for the environmentalists.

READ ALSO: The winners and losers: Six things to know about the EU election in Germany

Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg speaking at a demo in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Illustrating how successful the Greens were, Peter Matuschek from the Forsa polling institute told The Local that the Greens in Germany had been the only party – apart from the small “other” parties –  to increase their number of votes compared to the general elections, winning a massive 3.5 million more votes than in 2017.

In the past, the Greens in Germany were viewed as party who were a bit out of touch with reality. While some voters still hold this viewpoint, for others it has changed, especially in light of the Greens move to the centre of the political spectrum.

Matuschek said the upswing for Greens has been visible in all Forsa weekly polls since 2017.

“The reasons for the Greens' growth are at least twofold,” he said. “They have managed to renew themselves ideologically with a much more pragmatic profile than in previous elections and with a new leadership on the national level, reflecting this much more pragmatic and less ideological approach.”

Matuschek added that the Greens are benefitting from the crisis of the so-called grand coalition's CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

He said the implosion of these parties was pushing voters from both sides to the Greens – and that had been seen in state elections in Bavaria and Hesse last year.

They also “can’t be blamed for mistakes or conflicts” given that they are not currently in power at the federal level in Germany, Neugebauer pointed out.

SEE ALSO: Video: How the Green Party is shaking up Bavarian elections

Who are the Greens?

So just who are Die Grünen in Germany? Billed as a centre-left party, they promote climate protection, integration, digital progression, agricultural reform, e-mobility and social justice issues among other topics.

The Greens were initially founded in West Germany in January 1980, rising from the anti-nuclear energy, environmental, peace, new left, and new social movements of this time.

The party merged with the Greens in the east and teamed up with Alliance 90 (that's why Bündnis 90 is part of their official name), a group of civil rights activists, following reunification in 1990.

Their popularity went up and down, but in recent years support has become more steady. The Greens have seats in 14 of Germany's 16 state legislatures, and in nine of those they form part of a governing coalition, signalling that voters – and other parties – now take them seriously.

The Greens perform particularly well in cities and university towns. In Hamburg, the Greens won more than 31.2 percent of the European election vote. Similarly, in the nearby state of Schleswig-Holstein the party scooped about 29 percent, while in Berlin, 27.8 percent of voters crossed their box at the ballot.

This tweet shows the neighbourhoods in Berlin that voted Green.

Matuschek said in Hamburg the result “certainly reflects a decline of the SPD” which was once a Social Democrat stronghold.

“As for Schleswig-Holstein, it certainly helped that the Greens' chairman, Robert Habeck is from there and was minister in the regional government until last year,” he added.

The Greens' Hannah Neumann Annalena Baerbock and Sven Giegold. Photo: DPA

In fact, the Greens leadership is one of their top selling points. As The Local pointed out last year, the group which started out as a protest party – benefits from the pairing of Habeck and Annalena Baerbock.

The party has worked out how to put people at ease with less of a focus on radical ideas and demands for people to change their lifestyles. They try to project the image of wanting to make the lives of the average German better – while protecting the environment at the same time.

This mix is very attractive to the population right now and explains why a conservative voter – who wouldn't have touched the Greens with a barge pole previously – would give them their support.

Where the Greens don't fare so well is in the east. In Saxony, the AfD was the biggest force with 25.3 percent of the European elections vote, followed by the CDU (23 percent) and The Left (Die Linke), with 11.7 percent.

However, the Greens scooped a respectable 10.3 percent in Saxony, ahead of the SPD, who received just 8.6 percent of the vote.

But their appeal is growing, especially among women and younger voters. Green party membership spiked by almost 20 percent in former east Germany in 2018, federal managing director Michael Kellner told daily Die Welt in February.

READ ALSO: 'Younger and more eastern': Green Party boasts record membership

Interestingly, Neugebauer said polls show that young people under the age of 18 in the eastern states do tend to support the Greens, followed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). So in the future the Greens might have a bigger chance of success in eastern states.

READ ALSO: Meet the east German Greens candidate offering another alternative

So who is the typical Green voter?

“Areas with well-educated people with higher wages vote Green,” said Neugebauer.

The Green voter is the type of person who doesn’t have many concerns when it comes to money or housing and thinks: “‘I can vote for the Greens because the Greens are the modern party, while the CDU is the party who doesn’t know what the Zeitgeist really wants,” Neugebauer said.

'The youth won it'

It's fair to say the other big winner of the European elections in Germany is young people.

“The youth has won with two big successes,” said Neugebauer, emphasizing that they made their point with the weekly demonstrations on climate issues.

Furthermore, young people turned up the heat on the ruling parties with the help of the Internet, he added.

YouTuber Rezo posted a 55-minute video called “The destruction of the CDU”, around a week before the election, accusing the government coalition, which includes the centre-left SPD, of making policies “for the rich” while failing to act on crucial issues like global warming.

READ ALSO: German YouTuber shakes up mainstream politics with viral video

German YouTuber Rezo. Photo: DPA

Published online on May 18th, the video has been viewed millions of times, throwing Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party into crisis-fighting mode.

This is all good news for the Greens: a poll showed that around 30 percent of the under 30s age group voted for the environmentalists.

Graph by Statista for The Local

What happens next?

It's hard to know how much influence the Greens will have in the European parliament. But there will be no doubt that the party will try to keep hammering the message home about the importance of climate protection.

Germany, meanwhile, is looking ahead to the state elections in the east of the country. Here, the AfD is expected to be the big gainers.

So only time will tell if the Greens can continue their rise in Germany.

Neugebauer said the party had to do some soul-searching to decide how they wanted to be perceived in future, indicating that there are still splits in the party when it comes to their positions.

“Some Green party politicians are more pragmatic, some have a rather strong interest in getting into power into a government position,” he said.

Henrike Hahn, right, Bavarian top candidate for the European elections for the Greens on Sunday. Photo: DPA

Matuschek said it will come down to how the Volkspartei – people's parties – behave.

“Whether the surge of the Greens will continue or not will depend not the least on the ability of the CDU/CSU and the SPD to win back voters from the political centre that have defected either to the Greens or to abstention in the last decades,” he said.

“It will also depend on whether the Greens will manage to maintain their more pragmatic profile and will not alienate newly gained voters from other parties.

“The fact that the Greens' voters have become more heterogeneous (with the flux of former SPD- and CDU-voters) and less ideological will definitely be a challenge for the Greens, especially once they might be in office on the national level in Germany again.”

Member comments

  1. Nice to know. But just focusing on one message of Climate change is not enough. I have not read the manifesto of The Greens but they need to focus on other major challenges of immigration and slowing European economy and lack of EU integration, to attract a wider audience.

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Norway flirts with the idea of a ‘mini Brexit’ in election campaign

On paper, Norway's election on Monday looks like it could cool Oslo's relationship with the European Union but analysts say that appearances may be deceiving.

Norway flirts with the idea of a 'mini Brexit' in election campaign
The Centre Party's leader Slagsvold Vedum has called for Norway's relationship with the European Union to be renegotiated. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB / AFP

After eight years of a pro-European centre-right government, polls suggest the Scandinavian country is headed for a change of administration.

A left-green coalition in some shape or form is expected to emerge victorious, with the main opposition Labour Party relying on the backing of several eurosceptic parties to obtain a majority in parliament.

In its remote corner of Europe, Norway is not a member of the EU but it is closely linked to the bloc through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.

The deal gives Norway access to the common market in exchange for the adoption of most European directives.

Both the Centre Party and the Socialist Left — the Labour Party’s closest allies, which together have around 20 percent of voter support — have called for the marriage of convenience to be dissolved.

“The problem with the agreement we have today is that we gradually transfer more and more power from the Storting (Norway’s parliament), from Norwegian lawmakers to the bureaucrats in Brussels who are not accountable,” Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said in a recent televised debate.


Defending the interests of its rural base, the Centre Party wants to replace the EEA with trade and cooperation agreements.

However, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store, who is expected to become the next prime minister, does not want to jeopardise the country’s ties to the EU, by far Norway’s biggest trading partner.

“If I go to my wife and say ‘Look, we’ve been married for years and things are pretty good, but now I want to look around to see if there are any other options out there’… Nobody (in Brussels) is going to pick up the phone” and be willing to renegotiate the terms, Gahr Store said in the same debate.

Running with the same metaphor, Slagsvold Vedum snapped back: “If your wife were riding roughshod over you every day, maybe you would react.”

EU a ‘tough negotiating partner’

Initially, Brexit gave Norwegian eurosceptics a whiff of hope. But the difficulties in untangling British-EU ties put a damper on things.

“In Norway, we saw that the EU is a very tough negotiating partner and even a big country like Britain did not manage to win very much in its negotiations,” said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

While Norwegians have rejected EU membership twice, in referendums in 1972 and 1994, a majority are in favour of the current EEA agreement.

During the election campaign, the EU issue has gradually been pushed to the back burner as the Centre Party — which briefly led in the polls — has seen its support deflate.

The nature of Norway’s relationship to the bloc will depend on the distribution of seats in parliament, but experts generally agree that little is likely to change.

“The Labour Party will surely be firm about the need to maintain the EEA agreement,” said Johannes Bergh, political scientist at the Institute for Social Research, “even if that means making concessions to the other parties in other areas”.

Closer cooperation over climate?

It’s possible that common issues, like the fight against climate change, could in fact bring Norway and the EU even closer.

“Cooperation with the EU will very likely become stronger because of the climate issue” which “could become a source of friction” within the next coalition, Sverdrup suggested.

“Even though the past 25 years have been a period of increasingly close cooperation, and though we can therefore expect that it will probably continue, there are still question marks” surrounding Norway’s future ties to the EU, he said.

These likely include the inclusion and strength of eurosceptics within the future government as well as the ability of coalition partners to agree on all EU-related issues.

Meanwhile, Brussels is looking on cautiously. The EEA agreement is “fundamental” for relations between the EU and its
partners Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, according to EU spokesman Peter Stano.

But when it comes to the rest, “we do not speculate on possible election outcomes nor do we comment on different party positions.”