An earthquake has rocked the political landscape in Germany in the past year. Chancellor Merkel’s popularity has plummeted. The Social Democrat Party (SDP) has had to step down from its position as one of the two major parties for the first time since the end of the Second World War. In the meantime, the populist right-wing party known as the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) has amassed considerable influence on both state and national levels – despite its promotion of anti-democratic rhetoric and policies.
Yet this profound turnover has allowed another major player to emerge stronger than ever from the political chaos: the Greens Party. In stark contrast to the AfD, the Greens are unapologetically pro-immigration, pro-European Union, and pro-environmentalism. Moreover, they are undoubtedly “pro-democracy”: they arduously defend the principles of free speech, freedom of religion and the right to vote, while simulatenously holding a strong belief in the political institutions that uphold German democracy.
I will argue that the existence of the Greens Party as a viable alternative to both the crumbling central parties and the far-right AfD represents a roaring victory for German politics in general.
In order to understand the unprecedented success of the Greens, we must first look at the historical re-orientation of Germany’s major political parties that led to the new populist wave in the country. In the past few years, Chancellor Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) has pushed further into left-leaning territory – with its pro-refugee immigration policy as well as its stances on housing and the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the center-left SPD has found itself in an identity crisis, lacking both a unified political program and effective leadership. The result: a blurring of traditional party lines and stagnating political energy in the center of the spectrum, which has typically dominated German politics. As supporters of the CDU complained about their party’s pivot to the left, SPD members could not identify any longer with their own party’s disoriented platform.
The relative decline of both the CDU and SPD has created the opportunity for populist parties to rise to power. In recent years, the weakness of Germany’s central parties has led to a significant drop in satisfaction with government and voter turnout. However, this trend is now reversing with a new wave of political engagement amongst young voters and traditionally abstaining voters from both sides of the political spectrum. The recent success of the Greens is a testimony to this change and, in my opinion, a sign of a healthy democratic development in German politics.
Greens Party as Alternative to Centrist CDU/SPD
The Greens Party has emerged as a more promising alternative to both the CDU and the SPD. The popularity of Germany’s grand coalitions declined after they failed to address right-wing grievances and to effectively de-escalate violent altercations between pro- and ant-immigrant protestors, especially in East Germany. This turmoil gave the Greens the unique opportunity to offer a distinct, future-oriented political platform that seems significantly more promising than the unpopular policies of the centrist groups. The Greens Party accepted that the German public was not satisfied with the political status quo, and they recognized early on that action had to be taken.
Greens Party as Alternative to Right-Wing AfD
I am convinced that it is precisely the surge of support for the Greens – rather than any other alternative party – that provides the greatest hope for the strengthening of democratic values in Germany’s political institutions. For decades, established smaller parties have enjoyed a solid base of supporters in the German political landscape. These include the “Free Democratic Party” (“classical liberal,” i.e. center-right), and “The Lefts” (more left-wing than the SPD) – the latter having consistently attained around 10 per cent of the national vote during parliamentary elections. But as the AfD grew in popularity, ambiguity in the case of the Free Democrats and The Left’s proposal of policies too far from the center failed to gain mass support.
So why did the Greens succeed in growing significantly alongside the right-wing AfD? I believe that the Greens’ success is a result of their complete rejection of anti-immigration sentiments, and the xenophobia that has characterized the rise of the AfD. Unlike other small parties, the Greens have been able to offer a credible and unambiguous alternative to the far-right populist approach of the AfD. In addition, the Greens Party has especially appealed to young voters. Recent state elections, such as those in Hesse, have shown that the vast majority of newly eligible voters are choosing to vote for the Greens. This reflects a renewed emphasis among young people on combatting the anti-democratic rhetoric endorsed by the AfD.
It is important to note, however, that the Greens’ electoral ascent is a relatively new development. Their success in the 2017 Bavarian state elections exemplified their rapid rise––they grew to be the second largest party, with their vote share doubling from 8.6% in 2013 to 17.5%. Support for the AfD, on the other hand, preceded that of the Greens. And, on the national level there are no signs that the rise of the Greens is being accompanied by a fall in the far-right party’s popularity.
Thus it is unclear whether the Greens will evolve into a long-term political power to rival that of the more traditional parties. At the same time, the popularity of the Greens comes at a time when Germans are increasingly satisfied with their economic situation and general (as opposed to government) satisfaction levels are peaking. Historically, the ultimate success of populist movements has not coincided with these socio-economic conditions. Therefore, the growth of the Greens might indicate a long-term change in the zeitgeist rather than a short-term backlash against it.
Recent political developments in Germany have forced the political parties to consider what they stand for. We have seen that voters are willing to breach traditional party lines in search of what they personally believe to be the right course of action for the country. Amidst the myriad options to choose from due to the multi-party system, the Greens Party successfully promoted a new political outlook centered around pro-environmentalism and liberal values. I believe that this party’s promotion of liberal values in defense of democracy should be viewed as a success across the political spectrum.