Friday 18 July 2008

German Greens: Results and Prospects

Thomas Poguntke was the final speaker for the Keele environmental Summer School I've been dipping in and out of these last two weeks. The title of his paper was 'The German Greens: From Protest to Power to Nowhere?' Poguntke's account began with a trip down memory lane to 1976, when the West German 'two-and-a-half' party system saw 99% of votes cast go to the Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the smaller Liberals (FDP). It could be argued that was the point where the party system was its most stable and legitimate. However the consensus contained the seeds of its own break up. Bubbling beneath the surface from the late 70s on were a series of alternative green lists contesting seats at the local and regional levels on issues ignored by the mainstream - pollution, nuclear energy and peace. They quickly gained ground - they were able to contest and win seats at the 1979 European Elections and won 27 seats in the 1983 federal elections after clearing the 5% threshold.

The Greens emerged from a fortuitous confluence of long term processes and reaction to dominant policies. As a result of the post-war boom, citizens' movements could draw on more material, cultural and knowledge resources that could be mobilised for extra-parliamentary action. As far as Poguntke was concerned, the greater this diffusion the more likely elite-challenging behaviour will take place. Second, drawing on the work of
Ronald Inglehart, Poguntke agreed there was a shift in the value structure of affluent societies away from popular engagement with 'economistic' issues such as wages, workplace conditions and public services to a growth in so-called 'post-materialist' concerns like environmentalism and sexual equality. New Social Movements already organised around post-materialist objectives provided the backbone for the struggle against the expansion of nuclear power and NATO's decision to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles on West German soil. The support for these struggles and values meant there was a gap in the political agenda, which NSM/Green/Alternative activists tried to exploit electorally.

This was initially successful. The 27 seats won in 1983 expanded to 42 in
1987, backed by solid performances at lower levels of representation. The new movements plus growing awareness of environmental issues sustained their popularity, but came unstuck in the 'unity' elections of 1990. In a year when reunification was by far and away the main, if not the only political issue, the Greens were incapable of putting forward a coherent unified position, and were punished by losing all of their seats in the West. The only consolation was their partners from the East, the Alliance '90 grouping won eight seats, ensuring on paper a continuity of green representation. But the party was able to bounce back in 1994 and scoop up 49 seats, thanks to the continued respectable votes at the local and state level.

Parliamentary representation exposed the Greens to moderating pressures. Throughout the 80s the party was wracked with the realist/fundamentalist debate which, in many ways, paralleled the reform vs revolution controversy of social democracy. The 'realists' won out and enabled the Greens to compete successfully within the liberal democratic rules of the federal system. But the price was heavy. Organisationally, the party's commitment to internal participatory democracy - rotation of MPs, salary limits, and grassroots control over MPs were gradually reformed out of existence or abandoned. They were also seen as potential coalition partners by the SPD, which furnished the realists with the weapon of being able to enact policy. However, without exception this meant a watering down of the programme. However, in exchange for adapting to the system the system adapted to them, to an extent. For example, Green ideas gained a respectability and currency they hitherto lacked, forcing the mainstream parties had to take them seriously. The Greens were the first to introduce gender balanced lists, which was picked up by other parties. Environmental portfolios were created in state and federal governments, and the strength of opposition to nuclear weapons pressured the SPD into adopting a unilateralist stance for a time.

The experience of the 80s and 90s culminated in the 1998-2005 governing coalition with the SPD. The Green's most popular figure,
Joschka Fischer was made vice chancellor and foreign secretary and two other colleagues secured cabinet posts. The price of the alliance with the SPD were early crises around the German participation in the Kosovo War and the realisation that shutting down nuclear power stations would take 30 years. Achievements of the first term were mainly confined to "low cost" concessions on increased citizenship rights, consumer protection, gay marriage and renewable energy investment. Luckily the crises came early in the government and were able to increase their representation in the 2002 poll and maintain the coalition. In the second period it was their SPD partner that suffered most flak as it tried to implement neoliberal welfare cuts that hammered its core constituency. Interestingly in the 2005 election the Greens were not similarly punished for acquiescing to the cuts.

What of today? Since the establishment of the CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition Green fortunes have been mixed as the party system has again been thrown into flux with the founding and electoral success of
Die Linke (The Left). The thousands of activists and millions of workers alienated from the SPD's (continued) neoliberal turn have managed to find a political home outside. The saliency of unemployment, wages and prices has created an opportunity structure Die Linke can capitalise on and has enabled it to overtake the Greens in the Bundestag and the polls. While there is little evidence of overlapping constituencies - as the coalition period seemed to confirm - the Greens have been under pressure to adopt radical policies again. The party is discussing introducing basic citizen's incomes and increased accountability over its representatives. But sitting uneasily with an apparent resurgence of Green radicalism is discussion about other potential coalition partners. At present they're "experimenting" with the Christian Democrats in Hamburg, without any undue ructions within the party. If this doesn't underline the distance travelled by the Greens, I don't know what does.

In the questions and answers there were two that are likely to be of interest to AVPS readers. I asked about the extent of Green/DIe Linke overlap and if there is evidence of the latter taking some votes off the Greens. He replied that as the Greens once formerly drew energies from the NSMs, Die Linke has a similar relationship to the vibrant German global justice movement - the latter has avoided the Greens like the plague. But also it seems both parties are seeking to expand their base at the expense of others. Die Linke is targeting disgruntled SPD supporters and the Greens seemingly everywhere else.

The second question asked about the possibility of a left-green coalition that we have seen in several other European countries. Poguntke replied there was little common ground between the parties partly because of their respective electorates, and that the Greens had long accommodated themselves to the system whereas Die Linke was "unrealistic" enough to campaign against neoliberal cuts.

At the beginning of the question session Poguntke noted new radical formations are faced with an either/or choice. Does the party pursue what he called 'policy maximisation' or influence through government participation. What is clear from Poguntke's paper is the rapid journey of the German Greens from radicalism to the mainstream at almost indecent haste. Some positive environmental reforms have been enacted thanks to this strategy, but accepting the logic of the system has seen them lapse into the kinds of green liberalism and politics of unsustainability theorised by
Dobson and Bluhdorn respectively. In practice they have become the green conscience of the German bourgeoisie. By way of contrast, the British Green parties are much smaller but tend to be more radical. There is a tendency by some on the left and in the Greens to treat each other as potential allies who should avoid electoral conflicts, particularly those Greens on the left of their party and are more oriented toward the labour movement. The left should do what we can to assist these comrades, who in turn will make it difficult for "realists" to adapt their party to the neoliberal consensus. So in many ways the German Greens are a warning to their party. But the same lesson can be drawn by our comrades in Die Linke. Socialists inside need to fight against any drift to accepting the logics of the system. If this struggle fails, the co-opted watered-down fate of the Greens will befall this project too.


Jim Jepps said...

This is very interesting - thanks.

I think you're right that the German Green Party is fully accomodated with the system now - but that the lessons are not just lessons for Greens elsewhere, but others who seek to push a radical alternative vision.

I think that you're also right that there may well be a "moderating" tendency when you get elected - at least if you intend to be effective.

Part of that is "bad" - which is the part people like us emphasise, because we see it pushing people to the right - but the other side is that before you have responsiblity for running a council (say) you probably have not spent much thought about the minutea of the budget which is a necessary and unavoidable task when you are actually responsible for it.

Delivering services probably does stop you shooting off at the mouth every time you think of something that sounds cool...

Karl-Marx-Stra├če said...

I heard a debate on "1968" on the radio last night* - well it wasn't much of a debate as it was between Daniel Cohn-Bendit (representing "the west") and Die Linke 'realo' leader Andre Brie (representing "the east"), and any event that includes Cohn-Bendit on the platform can only really end in farce as he is incapable of civil discussion and prefers playing to the crowd.

Anyway, giving the experiences in Berlin - currently Die Linke have one-sidedly announced a pay deal without negotiations for local government workers - 'like it or lump it' and have argued that 'while we are Die Linke when we are in government, we are an employer, and have to act as one' - not as if that would have passed anyone by in Berlin over the past years - (sorry for the German-ness of this extremely long sentence)...

giving the experiences of Die Linke in government in Berlin, or in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the SAV has some activists and a councillor (in Rostock), your German comrades are the last people who need to be taught the lessons of the 'left' in government. They need to be teaching the rest of the party, instead. In Berlin they gave it a good go, at least.

Another brief history of the German Greens, written about 8 years ago, can be read at


Derek Wall said...

interesting, the structures of capitalist democracy push radicals towards far from radical policies, Greens and socialist need to be aware of these pressures, sadly most European Green Parties have lost their radical edge and my worry, always in 28 years of membership of the Green Party is that we will go the same way.

No easy answers but radical green politics needs defending, some encouragement from the US Greens selecting Cynthia McKinney, the green direct action movement (climate camp) and the rise of ecosocialism but it is always pessimism of the will for me.