Germany: Greens' support surges as two-party system unravels

Chairperson of the German Greens' parliamentary group in the Bundestag Renate Künast.

By Duroyan Fertl

October 17, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- Coasting on the back of environmental protests and a hemorrhaging two-party system, the German Greens have sent shock waves through German politics, surging into the position of main opposition party for the first time.

The Greens party, which was part of a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1998-2005 at the expense of many of the party’s principles, is benefiting from the unraveling of Germany’s traditional two-party system.

Nevertheless, the two major parties — the centre-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union coalition (CDU/CSU) and the centre-left SPD — retain a monopoly over government in Europe’s biggest economy.

But the facade appears to be truly falling apart at last. Opinion polls in early October put the Greens on 24%, one point ahead of the SPD.

At the 2009 federal elections, the Greens scored 10% of the vote. The far-left Die Linke won 11.9%.

In recent polls, the governing CDU was at 32%, while their Free Democratic Party allies only reached 6%. Die Linke remained steady on 11%.

The Greens’ poll surge comes amid a rise in environmental and community protests. In Stuttgart, the wealthy capital of the state of Baden-Wuerttemburg, the Greens have led community protests against a euro rail project worth more than four billion euros called “Stuttgart 21”.

The Stuttgart 21 project would see a huge new underground rail-hub and suburb built in Stuttgart, connecting super-fast trains from Paris to Budapest and throughout Germany. However, it would also lead to the destruction of a heritage railway station and iconic parkland. A wide range of social groups are involved in the protests. In addition to a huge blow-out in costs, they are protesting the lack of consultation and the heavy-handed way the government has sought to silence dissent.

On October 1, up to 100,000 people took to the streets in outrage. The day before, police violently suppressed a peaceful demonstration, using batons, capsicum spray and water cannons. A 66 year-old pensioner, Dietrich Wagner, was almost certainly permanently blinded when he was hit him in the face with a water cannon.

Support for the Greens has surged in Baden-Wuerttemburg as a result. They are polling 32% five months out from the March 27 state election. The CDU — which has ruled the state since 1952 — seems set to lose the election. Its 34% support would not be enough to stop a Greens-SPD coalition. The SPD is on 19%. The FDP and Die Linke are polling 6% and 5%, respectively.

In Germany’s largest state of Bavaria, about 50,000 people from community and environmental groups, and opposition parties including the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke, staged an anti-nuclear protest on October 9.

They formed a 10-kilometre human chain through the centre of the capital, Munich, in protest against the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to increase the life-span of Germany’s 17 nuclear power reactors — five of which are in Bavaria.

Merkel’s government claims the nuclear power stations will serve as a “bridging technology” for an average of 12 years beyond the previous 2022 moratorium until renewable energy can fill the gap.

The protest follows on from a similar outpouring of opposition to the decision in Berlin, where 100,000 people took to the streets in September in anger at the decision.

Like in Stuttgart, support for the Greens has increased as the protests keep growing.

The Greens are unlikely to overtake the SPD in the next federal elections in 2013, but if these numbers continue, it could get close.

However, the Greens are weakened by their “pragmatic” desire for power, which led the party to support German participation in the wars on Serbia and Afghanistan. The Greens have entered into coalition governments with the CDU in some states.

The Greens have also expressed interest in a federal coalition with the CDU in 2013.

The Greens appear to be capitalising on the widespread dissatisfaction with the SPD, but their greater success brings with it the temptation for even greater compromises that could erode what left-wing positions the party still holds.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]