Can the German Greens benefit from a CDU without Merkel?

The German Greens chose Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for German Chancellor ahead of the country’s federal elections in September. Marco bitschnau writes that with the ruling CDU in the throes of scandals and internal divisions, there is now a viable chance that Baerbock could lead the next government.

On March 14, the German Greens (abbreviation of Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen) celebrated what was arguably their biggest hit of all time. In the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, best known for its picturesque Black Forest villages, powerful car manufacturers and a notoriously pietist-conservative population, they not only once again became the most powerful party with a record-breaking result of 32 , 6%, but also exceeded that of Angela Merkel. CDU (their junior coalition partner since 2016) by a margin of 8.5 percentage points. It was nothing less than a show of force – and another humiliation for the CDU in its traditional southwestern stronghold. The party that ruled all state governments between 1953 and 2011 was once again forced to concede defeat to an adversary it had long refused to take seriously enough.

Highs and lows

There are many reasons why the Greens prevailed in the South. One is their outgoing minister-president Winfried Kretschmann, a 72-year-old popular former teacher who was brought to power by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster ten years ago. A member of the Maoists Communist League of West Germany in his youth, Kretschmann, with his distinctively Swabian accent and grandfather appearance, became the poster child for a new green pragmatism that is not afraid to cross the ideological aisle.

It is this pragmatism that has become increasingly attractive to a centrist electorate otherwise favorable to the CDU or the liberal FDP, and which has led the Greens to form coalitions with the two. In recent years, they have accepted such alliances in the federal states of Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein, leaving no doubt about their willingness to break free from the rigid bloc logic (CDU-FDP vs SPD-Greens) which has defined the policy of the German parties. for most of the post-war period.

This emancipation was largely enabled by the SPD Babylonian captivity in an unpopular grand coalition and the fallout from the climate crisis. In particular, the impact of the latter cannot be overestimated: while the Greens voted around 11% in June 2018, they reached a record level of 27% during the climate protests the following summer.

They peak too soonfeared many political observers, and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2020 seemed to prove them right. Once the virus tightened its grip on Europe, it soon became apparent that this was a crisis benefiting the ruling parties – just like other crises that the public perceive to be immediate, instantaneous and unforeseen, it spawned a rally around the flag effect of considerable proportions. Likewise, it has become evident that global warming, as significant as it may be in principle, cannot compete for attention in a single pandemic. For the Greens, this meant lower polls as they hoped to establish a new hierarchy within the German center-left.

Coalition games

They eventually recovered a bit and now once again the polls are ahead of the SPD by a few percentage points (e.g. 7% at Kantar, 5% at GMS and 3.5% at Allensbach in recent polls). However, the situation remains rather volatile and party strategists are planning different scenarios for September. The most likely scenario is a narrow CDU / CSU victory coupled with a strong performance by the Greens, followed by a Black-Green coalition that would focus on adopting bolder climate policies and continue the Merkelian progressive modernization project. This is the outcome expected by most but not preferred by all.

Especially the left wing of the Greens, mainly located in the northern and eastern states, is still beating the drum for a so-called “Red-Red-Green” or “Green-Red-Red” coalition with the SPD and the socialist left (Die Linke). And a “traffic light coalition”, where the left is traded for the FDP, is also seen as an increasingly realistic alternative. Both of these options have their advantages in theory (as they would leave the Greens at the helm of government), but could rely on very slim majorities and lead to a series of side complications. The reliability and willingness to compromise of the left have been questioned on several occasions, and the FDP could feel outnumbered and sidelined by two larger partners in the center-left coalition.

Other post-election scenarios are rare, the most obvious being the pursuit of the grand coalition. In theory, both parties would have good reasons to consider at least this possibility: by maintaining the status quo, the CDU could calm the murky waters and the SPD avoid the loss of representation in the cabinet (and therefore of relevance). However, at this point, such arguments seem futile – the end of the grand coalition is widely seen as a done, and it would take a lot to change that point of view.

Neither the respective party bases nor the public would be likely to accept a more of the same message after major electoral losses. But since all other options are either grand coalition modifications (e.g. CDU-SPD-FDP) or have been categorically excluded (e.g. CDU-FDP-AfD), this remains the more realistic alternative to the green government involvement. In other words, even the most likely coalition without the Greens is extremely unlikely. All they have to do is avoid mistakes and seize the opportunity on election day.

Eyes on the Chancellery

Yet before that they had to answer a critical question: who would be their candidate for chancellor. This is not a formal position, as the Chancellor is elected by parliament and MPs are not required to vote (secretly) for their party’s candidate. But the hope that the person chosen as the candidate will lead the government if a majority can be obtained is hardly ever disputed.

Most often, the honor of being chosen goes to the respective party leader, but exceptions to this rule are not uncommon. A prominent example in 2021 is the SPD, which announced Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz as a candidate, giving him preference over co-leaders Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. The CDU almost followed suit by dismissing the newly elected leader Armin Laschet in favor of the most prolific, popular and ambitious Markus Söder (leader of the CSU). However, the party ultimately backed Laschet in a vote on April 20.

In any case, Merkel’s successor will face a difficult campaign, as the departure of the Chancellor elected to four terms carries serious electoral risks for the CDU. With her statesmanlike appearance and unpretentious style, Merkel has attracted many people who probably would not have voted for her party purely for ideological reasons – and who may now reconsider their choice. The inconstant loyalty of these Wechselwähler * innen may have provided the Greens with additional motivation to present their own candidate for chancellor for the first time in history.

On April 19, they announced that party co-leader Annalena Baerbock, a political scientist, international lawyer and climate policy expert, was their candidate. For many casual observers, the decision to select Baerbock came as a surprise – they instead expected his fellow party leader Robert Habeck to be appointed. A professional writer with a doctorate in literary studies, Habeck served for more than eight years in the state government of Schleswig-Holstein, which, in addition to greater notoriety, gave him valuable experience of governance that Baerbock lacked. But, in the end, the 40-year-old mother of two proved that overwhelming party support and strong political instincts can be more important qualities.

Not that Baerbock and Habeck are so different. Both represent an adaptive and refreshing non-ideological style that contrasts with the intransigence of the post-Schröder years. And both are aware of their historic opportunity to replace the SPD as Germany’s main center-left force and perhaps even win the chancellery by appealing to centrist voters whom the CDU must retain at all costs. This does not mean that tradition Green policy will be neglected, but rather than the ongoing transformation of a niche environmentalist party into a genuine Volkspartei must be adequately reflected on the election campaign.

The Greens have a strong hand, and if they play it well, they could make history in September. There is no doubt that the CDU is aware of this, as its reaction is proving more and more erratic. Plagued by a string of corruption scandals, lacking direction and facing the most dangerous challenger for over fifteen years, one can easily imagine his quarrelsome leadership glancing nervously at Emily’s (prophetic?) Lines. Dickinson, who once wrote that “the color of the grave is green – the outer grave – I mean… ‘

Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Image credit pictured: Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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