In April this year, Germany’s Green party, for the first time in its history, announced a Chancellor candidate for the federal elections, scheduled to take place in September. The anointment of Annalena Baerbock, co-chair of the Greens since 2018, puts the seal on a transition that has been in the making — an ideological entity shifting gears to become a party that is ready to make political compromises, especially of the kind that may be unpalatable yet necessary to form a coalition government with the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has been in power for four terms under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As part of this transition, for some years now, the Greens have been trying to break the stereotype of being a one-issue party that doesn’t care about anything beyond the environment. Ms. Baerbock, for instance, has spoken strongly on human rights abuses in China, Russia’s aggressive moves on Ukraine, and economic inequality. In the weeks after her candidature was announced, the Greens even briefly led the opinion polls, before controversies around Ms. Baerbock’s professional ethics saw them fall back.
In a string of exposes, it emerged that Ms. Baerbock had not disclosed to Parliament some bonus payments she had received from her party, which she should have, as per the rules. Then came plagiarism allegations. An Austrian blogger put out a post, subsequently picked up by German media, claiming that some passages in her book, Now. How We Renew Our Country, were plucked wholesale from different sources without attribution. Another set of damaging allegations concerned ‘resume padding’, with a German journalist revealing on social media that her official resume falsely claimed she was a member of the German Marshall Fund and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), besides other organisations.
As Ms. Baerbock was weathering a media storm over these charges, a real one emerged, pushing the Greens’ core ideological agenda to the forefront of national politics. With flash floods claiming 181 lives in Germany and causing billions of euros worth of damage, suddenly climate change, even for conservative voters, was no longer about Arctic ice caps or something that happens in 2050 but an urgent crisis that needed management by adept hands — and who better than the Greens to do it?
But the Greens have been wary of drawing — or rather, being seen as drawing — political mileage from the floods. In public comments in the aftermath of the floods, the party has dwelled more on beefing up infrastructure and building positivity rather than talk about climate change. This is seen as a smart move insofar as it avoids alienating voters who may not be Green supporters but looking for a break from the status quo.
Ms. Baerbock has opted to let voters draw their own conclusions about the floods, and they have, with a recent poll revealing that 55% of Germans linked the flash floods to climate change. The Greens, at the same time, are aware of a growing sense among voters that the massive economic reset needed to tackle climate change is unlikely to come from the two mainstream parties, the CDU and the SPD. But rather than get into the negativity of flood-related losses, the Greens have simply announced a €25 billion plan to help the economy and industry shift into climate neutral mode. Such a massive investment would entail incurring debt, which is unlikely to go down well with either of its potential coalition partners, CDU or SPD, as both have a track record of fiscal conservatism.
In a poll conducted this week, the Greens scored 19% in approval ratings, eight points behind the CDU at 27%, though ahead of the SPD at 18%. While Ms. Baerbock garnered 16% of the hypothetical votes, the CDU’s Chancellor candidate Armine Laschet was at 20%. The most popular candidate, ironically, was from the least popular of the three major contenders, with Olaf Scholz of the SPD way ahead at 35%. This election, in the absence of Ms. Merkel, is turning out to be the most unpredictable one Germany has seen in a long time.
The Greens have never formed their own government at the federal level. They have, however, been part of a ruling coalition with the SPD for two terms, 1998 and 2005, before returning to the Opposition. With barely a month to go for the elections, unless something big happens to change these numbers drastically, it would appear that the Greens are once again on course to be kingmakers rather than king. But if they do better than the SPD, and Ms. Baerbock stays ahead of rival Chancellor candidates in popularity ratings — she is ahead of Laschet at present while the more popular Scholz is hampered by his own party’s unpopularity – then Germany may well get a Green Chancellor to guide them in an era of climate crises.