In Bavaria, Green Could Be King

Forget the rise of the AfD. The real story in this weekend’s elections may well be the rise of the Greens, which will reshape German politics.

Katharina Schulze, the lead candidate for the Greens, speaks at the Gillamoos folk fest in Abensberg on Sept. 3. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)
Katharina Schulze, the lead candidate for the Greens, speaks at the Gillamoos folk fest in Abensberg on Sept. 3. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)

Very soon, Germany’s prosperous beer and BMW belt could find itself under new management. In elections this weekend, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is very likely to lose its long-held absolute majority in Bavaria.

It is hard to overstate how dramatic the shift will be. The CSU has been Bavaria’s dominant political force since Germany’s economic boom in the 1960s. And for most of that time, it has been able to rule without a coalition partner. But with a record number of parties on the ballot this year, the CSU and its traditional mainstream rival, the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD), have seen their supporters drift toward smaller rivals.

One of those rivals is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Given its rather radical stances on immigration and the European Union, most news reports about the upcoming election have focused on the fact that the AfD is expected to pick up more than 10 percent of the vote in Bavaria. But the real political earthquake this election cycle has been the rise of the Green party, which has more supporters—on both the left and the right—than ever. (Indeed, according to the Forsa research institute, only 60 percent of new Green supporters come from the left of the political spectrum.) With such broad backing, it is no wonder that the Greens stand poised to win 18 percent of the vote and come in second in this weekend’s race in Bavaria, even displacing the SPD.

The green wave in Germany’s south follows successive gains for the party all over the country and portends a major role for the Green party in future federal governments. If the CSU wants to maintain its position in Bavaria, it could do worse than ally with this environmental group-turned-serious political contender.

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In 1986, Franz Josef Strauss, the legendary former chairman of the CSU, warned that “no legitimate political party can be right of the CSU.” But following the large influx of migrants into Germany starting in 2015, such parties—namely the AfD—did start to form. In Bavaria, this new right-wing movement won over voters from the CSU, which had initially gone along begrudgingly with Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees. The AfD, by arguing that it would save Germany for the Germans, consequently rose in the polls across Germany, entering the federal parliament in 2016.

Perhaps spooked by Strauss’s ghost, the CSU decided to tack right, especially on immigration and cultural issues. It mandated the hanging of crucifixes on public buildings (a reassertion of Germany’s Christian heritage) and began taking a harder public line on immigration. Horst Seehofer, the federal interior minister who belongs to the CSU, brazenly challenged Merkel’s refugee policy by pushing for Germany to turn migrants back at the border if they had already registered as refugees in another EU member state. In another dis of the chancellor, he also offered an advisory role to Hans-Georg Maassen, the former domestic intelligence chief, after Merkel jettisoned Maassen for contradicting her about the ferocity of far-right protests in Chemnitz.

The trouble for the CSU is that none of its attempts to edge out the AfD worked and the optics of the predominantly male CSU leadership antagonizing Merkel backfired. In Bavaria, the party has seen a 7 percent drop in support from female voters. Meanwhile, only a quarter of Germans agree that Merkel should keep Seehofer as a member of her cabinet.

Indeed, it appears that the CSU, in parroting the AfD on immigration, misread voters. Undoubtedly, the public is concerned about migration and security, but according to a report put out in October by DeutschlandTrend, more Bavarian voters are preoccupied with education, the environment, and affordable housing. Among those polled for the DeutschlandTrend report, 55 percent said education was “very important,” 46 percent said the same about the environment, and 45 percent did about affordable housing. Just under 40 percent said immigration was very important. In short, running mainly on immigration issues was not going to be a ticket for an absolute majority. The CSU needed a broader platform.

Enter the Bavarian Greens, co-led by the charismatic Katharina Schulze. Ironically for a party that started as a single-issue opposition group itself, the Greens are now are tackling a wider range of problems.

The Greens, founded in 1980, first took on a governing role at the federal level two decades ago when they formed a coalition government with the SPD. When the SPD lost to Merkel and her CDU, the Greens once again become a reliable opposition party. Its former partner, the SPD, entered into governing coalitions with the CDU during Merkel’s first, third, and current terms as chancellor. In doing so, the SPD has seen its support plunge. Much of that support has gone to the Green party, which has, over time, expanded its platform to cover topics ranging from foreign policy to digital governance.

Today, the Greens find themselves in the governing coalitions of more than half of Germany’s federal states. And if a national election were to take place now, recent polling data from Civey predicts that the Greens would eclipse the SPD. Unlike the two biggest traditional parties, the Green party has remained true to its progressive roots and has stuck to its ideals of openness and tolerance. Furthermore, it has been diligent about grooming new leaders and has not invested its fortunes in the personalities of a few political figures.

Given the Green party’s recent successes, it may be both the ideal partner for the CSU in Bavaria and the only viable coalition partner for the CDU after the next federal election. Germans have become disenchanted with the grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD, which has stifled the main parties and has led to the rise of fringe forces that make it increasingly complicated to put together viable coalition governments.

At first glance, a partnership between the conservatives and the Greens might seem odd, but the two parties do have overlapping voter bases. To be sure, migration policy is still a large point of disagreement. But in other areas, including the environment and security, the differences are bridgeable. Far from their pacifist days, the Greens are now clear-eyed about Russian aggression and have accepted the multilateral use of force to protect human rights abroad. That brings them closer to the position of the conservatives. Meanwhile, the German population (including conservatives) has moved closer to the position of the Greens on the environment. In Germany, environmental consciousness is mainstream.

Those who are still skeptical about a green-black alliance can look to Baden-Württemberg for proof that it can work. In 2016, the Greens made history in that conservative stronghold by coming in first place in regional elections. It joined with the CDU to form a government that was able to tackle security, tech innovation, and the environment. The marriage between the opposites has not been perfect—a dispute over reforming election rules nearly broke the coalition apart—but both parties efficiently split up portfolios and proved ready to compromise when it came to increasing the police force and investing more in education and in safeguarding digital privacy.

For its part, Bavaria’s CSU has not ruled out joining forces with the Green party, although it would probably rather avoid such a fate. Chances are that it will cobble together a government of three with the centrist Free Democratic Party (FPD) and the Free Voters, an independent-minded group that has found success in Bavaria. But in doing so, the CSU may soon find itself out of step with the rest of Germany. As the Green party continues to sweep the country, Merkel has already adopted policies that Greens approve of. She even tried to partner with the Green party and the FDP after the last election, but the FDP blinked. Merkel’s groundwork may put the next CDU chancellor in better position to work with the Greens.

The role of kingmaker—the small party that gives the CDU or the SPD the keys to the chancellery—used to be a major part of German politics. It largely disappeared during the Merkel era because of her penchant for governing from the middle with the SPD in tow. But as small parties rose to challenge the grand coalition, government formation has become more complex. But a strong Green party could break the deadlock and realign the political landscape. After the next federal election, Green could be king.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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