From trailblazing radicals to Germany’s ‘most popular’ party: Who are the Greens?

Having just announced their first ever chancellor candidate, Germany's Green Party is now leading in the polls ahead of September’s elections. How did what started as a grassroots movement gain a stronghold in German politics?

From trailblazing radicals to Germany's 'most popular' party: Who are the Greens?
Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Photo: DPA

Though die Grünen (the Greens) are often seen as a marginal party and currently hold around nine percent of seats in the Bundestag, they have steadily been gaining traction at state level and are now polling ahead of Merkel’s conservative party nationally. 

READ ALSO: ‘Germans are in the mood for change’: Greens take lead in new polls

The Greens have been doing things differently from the start, with a consistent focus on equality, ecology and social change, but over the past four decades the party has morphed from a patchwork of peace movements into a cornerstone of national politics.

‘The anti-party party’

The anti-establishment party grew out of the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1960s and 70s, uniting regional organisations across the country with a focus on environmentalism, non-violence and human rights. 

The Green Party provided a political home for those disillusioned with mainstream politics, and viewed itself more as a grassroots democratic movement than a political organisation. Petra Kelly, one of its founding members, even went so far as to call the Greens “the anti-party party”. 

Petra Kelly (left) at a Greens’ meeting in 1984. Photo: DPA

The national Green Party was officially established in January 1980 in Baden-Württemberg’s second largest city Karlsruhe and celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year. Entering the Bundestag in 1983 with 5.6 percent of the vote, the Greens drew their initial success from widespread public opposition to the deployment of new nuclear weapons in West Germany. 

A party rift

Though they have been represented at national level ever since, the Green Party has not been without its controversy. During the 1980s, a major rift emerged between Fundis (fundamentalists) who refused to compromise on the party’s key principles, and Realos (realists) who favoured electability and cooperation with the SPD (Social Democrats). 

By the end of the 1980s it was clear that the Realos were dominating the party, particularly after the formation of a Green-SPD coalition in Hesse. The party’s success was propelled by public outrage at the handling of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which led the Greens to claim 8.3 percent of the vote in elections the following year. 

A national alliance forms

The 1990s were a time of evolution for the Green party as well as for Germany as a whole. In 1993, the West German Green Party merged with Alliance ‘90, a coalition of the East German Greens and various grassroots environmental organisations. The newly unified party was represented nationally for the first time after the 1994 election and entered government in 1998 when they formed a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). 

Though many saw this ascendancy as a huge victory for the party, the decision to form a national alliance with the Social Democrats was seen by many Fundis as a bittersweet victory. 

Now the junior partners in a coalition government, Green politicians found themselves having to support policies they had once vehemently opposed, including voting in favour of German involvement in military efforts in Kosovo in 1999 and deploying troops in Afghanistan in 2001.

These were viewed by many serving politicians and party members alike as a flagrant betrayal of the Greens’ core nonviolent principles and the party was seen to be drifting towards the political centre. This did not seem to harm the party’s overall popularity however, and the Greens achieved their best election result to date in 2002. 

Ousted from government in 2005, when relations with the SPD soured and the alliance failed to win a majority in the Bundestag, the Greens were at a political crossroads, not least because all other major parties had adopted strong environmental policies.

A fresh wind

The election of Cem Özdemir as co-leader in 2008, the first person of Turkish descent to lead a German political party, rejuvenated die Grünen and they went on to win over 10 percent of the vote in the following general election. 

Cem Özdemir at a party meeting in 2019. Photo: DPA

National representation has hovered around 8-10 percent since then, but the party has been growing quickly in the Bundesländer (federal states). The Greens hold seats in 14 of the 16 state legislatures, and govern within coalitions in 11 of these. 

In 2016, the Greens made history in Baden-Württemberg, emerging as the largest party for the first time ever at state-level. Die Grünen are also the second largest party in Bavaria, Hamburg and Hesse. 

Determined not to fade into the mainstream, the Greens remain the only major party in the country to have a shared, gender-balanced leadership, with Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck having led the party together since 2018.

It was announced last week that Baerbock had been selected as the German Green Party’s first ever Kanzlerkandidat (candidate for chancellor). 

READ ALSO: Who is Annalena Baerbock, the ex-trampolinist aiming high in German politics?

Bolstered by a surge in the polls and the announcement of Baerbock as the party’s candidate for national leadership, the Greens gained a record 2,159 new members between Monday and Friday last week. 

Polling at 28 percent nationally, despite the challenge posed by the pandemic for campaigning, the Greens are hoping to cause some disruption in September’s elections. 

The Green Party is now fighting to be at the centre of German politics, and the main message that emerged from their party conference at the end of last year was “we’ve been in opposition long enough. it’s time to move into the driving seat.” 

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Green Party leader: ‘Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament’

Per Bolund, joint leader of Sweden's Green party, spoke for thirteen and a half minutes at Almedalen before he mentioned the environment, climate, or fossil fuels, in a speech that began by dwelling on healthcare, women's rights, and welfare, before returning to the party's core issue.

Green Party leader: 'Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament'

After an introduction by his joint leader Märta Stenevi, Bolund declared that his party was going into the election campaign on a promise “to further strengthen welfare, with more staff and better working conditions in healthcare, and school without profit-making, where the money goes to the pupils and not to dividends for shareholders”. 

Only then did he mention the party’s efforts when in government to “build the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”. 

“We know that if we want welfare to work in the future, we must have an answer to our time’s biggest crisis: the threat to the environment and the climate,” he said.

“We know that there is no welfare on a dead planet. We need to take our society into a new time, where we end our dependency on oil, meet the threat to the climate, and build a better welfare state within nature’s boundaries, what we call a new, green folkhem [people’s home].” 

He presented green policies as something that makes cities more liveable, with the new sommargågator — streets pedestrianised in the summer — showing how much more pleasant a life less dependent on cars might be.  

He then said his party wanted Sweden to invest 100 billion kronor a year on speeding up the green transition, to make Sweden fossil fuel-free by 2030. 

“We talk about the climate threat because it’s humanity’s biggest challenge, our biggest crisis,” he said. “And because we don’t have much time.” 

In the second half of his speech, however, Bolund used more traditional green party rhetoric, accusing the other political parties in Sweden of always putting off necessary green measures, because they do not seem urgent now, like a middle-aged person forgetting to exercise. 

“We know that we need to cut emissions radically if we are even going to have a chance of meeting our climate goal, but for all the other parties there’s always a reason to delay,” he said. 

“We are now seeing the curtain go up on the backlash in climate politics in Sweden. All the parties have now chosen to slash the biofuels blending mandate which means that we reduce emissions from petrol and diesel step for step, so you automatically fill your tank in a greener way. Just the government’s decision to pause the  reduction mandate will increase emissions by a million tonnes next year.” 

The right-wing parties, he warned, were also in this election running a relentless campaign against the green party. 

“The rightwing parties seem to have given up trying to win the election on their own policies,” he said. “Trying to systematically push out of parliament seems to be their way of trying to take power. And they don’t seem above any means. Slander campaigns, lies, and false information have become every day in Swedish right-wing politics.” 

He ended the speech with an upbeat note. 

“A better, more sustainable world is possible. There is a future to long for. If you give us a chance then that future is much closer than you think!”

Read the speech here in Swedish and here in (Google Translated) English.