The Green party has long been a prominent political advocate for sustainable and environmental initiatives, policy, implementation and action. Recently, Germany’s Green party has had surprising success despite a large focus on the rise of the far right, yet Green parties throughout Europe are gaining traction in support and voters. While Merkel’s coalition dives in the polls, the Greens have been riding a wave of support.
The Green Party was initially founded in West Germany as Die Grünen (the Greens) in January 1980. It rose out of the anti-nuclear energy, environmental, peace, new left, and new social movements of the late 20th century. Decades after their rebellious arrival on Germany’s political scene, the party is poised to become part of a new establishment with nominations for the chancellorship. While news outlets and media have focused on the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), at the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens have been gaining just as much popularity . Despite receiving just 8.9 percent of the vote during the 2017 general election, Germany’s environmentalist Greens are currently polling in second place both nationally and in Bavaria, where a key state election will take place on October 14. The Greens are part of a cohesive and powerful bloc in a newly fractured European parliament. They are in a grouping with progressive regional and “pirate” parties of the European Free Alliance, who altogether hold nearly 10% of votes.
According to Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Berlin’s Freie Universität, the surge in popularity is a testament to the course correction of current Green party co-chairs Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Using rhetoric that marries traditional German culture with environmental conservation, Baerbock and Habeck, who have led the party since January 2018, have reimagined the trend toward nationalism that is currently gripping Germany. Once seen as fringe idealists, years as part of national and local coalitions in several countries (most prominently Germany) have given the Greens credibility as a party of government, and not just a home for discontented protest voters. More recently, they have consolidated a manifesto that puts social justice and human rights at the heart of the fight for the planet, drawing in voters who have become disillusioned with mainstream centre-left parties.
Green parties are strongest in the prosperous countries of Europe’s north-west: Germany, France, the Benelux states, the UK and Scandinavia. The old Iron Curtain marks the limits of their strength in central and eastern Europe, where Green consciousness is spreading but has yet to break through into significant political representation. Green parties are also weaker in southern Europe, where politics remains strongly structured by left-right cleavages. Recent academic work suggests Green parties do best in countries with high levels of gross domestic product per capita, lower rates of unemployment, and decentralised political systems that enable them to build out from local bridgeheads. Green support is highest amongst young, university-educated, middle-class professionals. Yet many of the heirs of the soixante-huitard generation (took part in, or otherwise supported, the civil unrest in France in May 1968, characterised by student protests and widespread strikes) have stayed Green as they have aged.
The success of the Greens reflects the political salience of climate breakdown and public concern about environmental issues such as urban air quality and plastic pollution. Green politics has brought these issues from the margin to the mainstream in recent decades, and their salience is unlikely to diminish in the future. The electoral prospects of Green parties are also nourished by highly visible civil society campaigns such as the school strike for climate led by Greta Thunberg or the Extinction Rebellion movement. These keep Green demands in the public spotlight and enable Green politics to move fluidly across the institutional boundaries of state and civil society. At the same time, environmental consciousness is now embedded in everyday life, from choices about what to eat and wear, to how to travel, heat your home and educate your children.
Before Covid-19 took hold, fires, floods and extreme weather events were sparking worldwide alarm about the climate crisis. And many people will return to exhorting their political leaders to act against this serious long-term threat once the pandemic is over – perhaps in new circumstances, where the extreme measures taken to tackle the coronavirus will have expanded the sense of what is politically possible. As yet though, few countries have turned their growing green sentiments into electoral support for parties that prioritise the environment. The most significant exceptions are found in the German-speaking lands of Europe; Austria, Switzerland and Germany, where support for Green parties is growing rapidly. These countries’ proportional representation electoral systems have helped to make this success possible. It sees the current system of international trade agreements as being ‘a race to the bottom, setting low costs against sustainability’ and proposes measures to bring about higher ecological and social standards, more cost-effective transport and thus a strengthening of the local economy. There is a tendency to identify the Greens with left-leaning, younger radicals. But it is possible to imagine how their proposals on conservation and boosting local agriculture could eventually help them to make inroads into the largely conservative rural electorate too.
Voter demographics and mobilisation are among the main factors that led to this victory. Young voters have been especially active in this election and voter turnout has been the highest in twenty years. This suggests that many voters that previously felt apathetic to the EU electoral process or no longer identified with the classical Christian democratic- social democratic political divide finally may have found a party that represents their views. As a result, climate policy seems to have entered the mainstream political debate like never before.