A Green Spring in Germany: a bellwether for the Autumn?

In March’s two state elections, no party lost more ground than Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU. Tarred by deepening scandal, a slow vaccination rollout and lockdown fatigue, its popularity is plummeting. Conversely, big gains in these early contests in the nation’s super-cycle election year — culminating with September’s federal parliament and chancellery vote — show that public opinion is turning decidedly Green. New polling shows that as approval for the CDU and their CSU sister party collapses, the Greens are pulling almost even with them — in some cases, even creeping slightly ahead. As spring comes to Germany, for the first time in both national and party history, a Green chancellorship seems possible. Energy Transition’s lead blogger, Michael Buchsbaum reviews the early stage of the race to succeed Merkel.

(Photo by Arne Bevaart, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Imagining the unimaginable

In mid-January the Green Party’s co-leaders, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, walked into the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Berlin headquarters building ahead of the year’s kickoff discussions.

Asked about her party’s chances in September’s federal elections, Baerbock replied that, though “we are still the underdog…last year showed that the unimaginable can become possible.”

After months of lockdown, endless haggling over new Covid-19 regulations, a failed vaccine strategy, and lack of leadership around climate change or the energy transition, Germany’s political winds are quickly changing.

Mask and energy scandals engulf the CDU

The Greens have seen rising support as voter’s flee Angela Merkel’s conservative amid a string of lobbying scandals.

Since the first revelations about improper face-mask purchasing deals broke in February, major public opinion polls show approval for the CDU and CSU (together “the Union”) plunging by almost 10%.

In late March, the CDU’s “Grand Coalition” partner, the Social Democrats (SPD) delayed crucial talks on wind and solar energy expansion because of allegations reported by Die Zeit that Joachim Pfeiffer, the CDU/CSU spokesperson on energy policy, kept hidden that he also runs two consulting firms with energy business ties.

As Clean Energy Wire notes, this comes directly after the CSU’s energy politician Georg Nüßlein, who was also a negotiator in renewables talks, resigned after being accused of receiving kickbacks for brokering face-mask deals last year. On top of this, public media outlet WDR has alleged that Nüßlein had also personally profited from changes to the renewable energy laws (EEG 2021) that he helped negotiate last December.

Scandals have not only forced four resignations in the Union so far, they’ve also crushed the CDU’s hopes of an unchallenged victory in September.

Green strongholds become greener

The first contests in this year’s super-cycle election year took place in mid-March in two southwestern states: Baden-Württemberg (BW) and Rhineland-Palatinate (RLP).

In BW, for the third consecutive election, the Greens improved their results and gained votes. The sunny, prosperous state is dominated by Germany’s automotive industry. State capitol, Stuttgart, is home to both German car brands Mercedes-Benz and Porsce.

BW’s Green’s have benefitted from their highly popular candidate and current premier, Winfried Kretschmann. His remarkable political career has spanned the arc of the Green party’s founding—of which he was a core member, to its current status as second-most popular nationwide.

The Green’s victory there was their best ever, boosting them to almost 33%. It was also the worst showing yet for the CDU, which fell to just 24% of the vote, down by some 3%.

Simultaneous to the BW vote, the nearby state of Rhineland-Palatinate also held elections. Though the Greens didn’t capture the most votes there, they almost doubled their results from five years ago.

Their strong showing grants them more power in RLP’s on-going three-party “traffic light” coalition between the Greens, the center-left SPD (red) and the more neoliberal FDP (yellow) – the same combination now possible in BW, currently governed by a Green/CDU coalition.

As a lame duck, Merkel leads a disunited Union

After 16 years as chancellor, Merkel remains the party’s most popular leader. After she opted not to run again, a growing political vacuum has formed in her wake.

Though the party has a new leader, Armin Laschet, the state premier of Nord Rhine Westphalia, it still hasn’t named a candidate for the chancellery.

Laschet, whose father was a coal miner, has deep links to the coal-heavy utility RWE – and energy and industry dominate state politics in NRW. Laschet long ago lost key environmentalist support by helping wage war against protestors in the occupied Hambach forest.

Worse, he is neither popular with Merkel nor with much of the populace.

Polling shows that Bavarian CSU state premier Markus Söder is currently the public favorite to succeed her. Unlike Laschet, his popularity has grown over the past year due mainly to his leadership response to Covid-19.

Yet Söder’s environmental record is also less than progressive. He’s been a key proponent of strict wind turbine distance regulations in his state that, now in place nationwide, have helped stall the country’s slowing onshore wind expansion.

Holding Söder back is Laschet himself, who, as party leader, might claim the right to run. In April, the CDU/CSU union will hold their joint convention.

Whoever they ultimately select will struggle to win Merkel’s blessing while simultaneously differentiating themselves from her and the increasingly scandal-ridden party.

Victories show how much hinges on Greens

The Green’s choice of coalition partners in BW and the continuing relationship in RLP mirror the decision the party may face following federal elections in September. According to many current polls, the two options, ruling with the CDU/CSU or forming a “traffic light” coalition with the SPD and FDP are the most likely outcomes.

Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist, analyst and veteran of Kretschmann’s government in BW, pointed out in an email exchange with ET that the Green’s victories in the two states underlines their emerging role as “Germany’s hinge party, being able to pursue their policies in different coalitions.”

Writing in his latest newsletter, Green Notes from Germany’s Southwest, he says three issues will likely determine the Green’s coalition decisions both in BW and on a national level: shared policies and ideology; personalities; and the tactics and stability of the new coalition itself.

A week after the BW elections, on the Tagesthemen Sunday television show, Kretschmann discussed the supremacy of tackling the climate crisis. Whatever options the party faces in the future, he said it would only back those “ready to make an ambitious climate protection policy.” Given the exigency of the problem, the decision must be limited to those parties willing to move “faster” on climate “only with them will we form a coalition,” he said.

Though Jungjohann suggests that the Greens and the SPD may have more ideological similarities on how fast and how far to move on climate issues, these views are not shared by their potential FDP coalition partner. Though relatively small on the federal level today, the FDP has staked out a well-established conservative position on the primacy of financial markets, not governments, in determining policies.

Readers may recall that the FDP scuppered talks on forming a CDU-Green-FDP federal coalition in 2017, largely over different stances regarding the nation’s nuclear phaseout.

Jungjohann also fears that in a traffic-light coalition, the Greens’ partners might be less interested in governing in the interest of Germany and the EU but rather seek to bolster their own standing.

Breaking: Just two weeks after the BW elections, Kretschmann has announced that the Greens will renew their partnership with the CDU for the next term. Only time will tell if this becomes a model for a Green-CDU partnership on the federal level too.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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