If Bundestag elections were held on Sunday, Germany would most likely have a new left-wing SPD-Green coalition government headed – for the first-time ever – by an ecologist chancellor. Current opinion polls put the Greens at a stunning 24 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of the SPD who gain 23 percent, and certainly enough for both to gain an absolute majority of seats in the Bundestag. In Germany, the biggest party in a coalition government traditionally gets the top jobs, the country’s chancellor or the minister-president of one of the 16 different Laender states.

One would be hard pressed to describe the recent meteoric political rise of the Greens and their corresponding transformation into Germany’s foremost opposition party as anything but revolutionary. At the last Bundestag elections in September 2009, the Greens received just 10 percent of the votes and were forced to stay in opposition while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservatives managed to force out the SPD from their four-year old “Grand Coalition” to form the current center-right government with the free-market FDP party.

Over the past year, however, the Merkel government has failed to live up to its high expectations. Frequent political infighting, especially between the smaller CSU-FDP parties, and a growing public perception that Chancellor Merkel’s cautious, consensus-driven governing style was ultimately to blame for the coalition’s lack of focus and discipline left many (center-right) voters highly disappointed. Most surprisingly, Chancellor Merkel has even failed to get much political credit for Germany’s on-going remarkable economic recovery characterized by an export boom (especially vis-à-vis China and other parts of Asia) as well as a sharp drop in the unemployment rate (now 7.2 percent). Current opinion polls give the ruling CDU/CSU-FDP party only about 34 percent of the vote – a dramatic fall compared to the September 2009 Bundestag elections.

The Greens, in contrast, have successfully seized on the Merkel coalition’s weak political performance to establish themselves as the opposition party of choice for those who are not happy about what is going on in Berlin. For example, Chancellor Merkel’s controversial decision to extend the operating life of Germany’s nuclear power plants by 10-15 years struck a highly sensitive political nerve and allowed the Greens to capitalize on their long-standing reputation as the country’s earliest and most vocal “Anti-Atom” movement. Sadly, the ruling CDU/CSU-FDP coalition failed to make a convincing case for why nuclear power must be part of Germany’s future energy mix, namely to reduce CO2 emissions, to prevent energy costs from going through the roof, and to minimize the country’s growing dependence on oil and gas imports from Russia.

The Greens are also getting a major political boost due to the fact that a relatively minor, regional issue like the ecologically controversial modernization of the main train station in Stuttgart (the wealthy capital of the state of “Baden-Wurttemberg”) has suddenly been transformed into a national “cause célèbre” for the ecologist party. While the ruling CDU-FDP state government continues to back the “Stuttgart 21” railroad project in spite of growing public opposition and massive protests, the Greens are now polling at 32 percent in Baden-Wurttemberg, which traditionally is not only one of Germany’s wealthiest states but also, along with neighboring Bavaria, a crucially important conservative stronghold. In a desperate attempt to go on the political offensive, Chancellor Merkel recently went as far as declaring the Spring 2011 regional elections in Baden-Wurttemberg a “referendum” on the entire “Stuttgart 21” development. Good luck. Barring a political miracle, the current CDU-FDP government will be replaced by a Red-Green coalition headed by an ecologist minister-president in less than six months.

The fact that the Greens are now re-entering state governments, like the one in North-Rhine Westphalia (Germany’s most populous state) and most likely in Baden Wurttemberg, is a double-edged sword for their party’s path to the pinnacle of power in Berlin. On the one hand, taking the lead in governing a regional state provides the Greens with an opportunity to demonstrate political maturity, credibility, and professionalism. In particular, getting a first-ever Green minister-president (most likely in Stuttgart) would be a clear signal to the rest of the country that the party is ready for an even higher office. At the same time, however, the Greens’ increasing governing responsibilities in various Laender will also reduce their ability to position themselves as the country’s foremost opposition party. Unlike the SPD party, the Greens have been out of government since 2005 and are thus in a much better position to aggressively attack Chancellor Merkel’s political record.

The other German parties are struggling with how to react to the sudden rise of the Greens. For the SPD, which is hovering near historical lows in the polls, it is critically important to regain disaffected supporters that they have lost to the Greens as well as to the Left Party. If the SPD fails to stop the erosion of its electoral base, it will not be in a position to defend its decades-old position as the natural leader of Germany’s left-of-center political spectrum.

For the CDU/CSU and the FDP, in contrast, the key challenge will be to expose the programmatic shortcomings – some would say intellectual incoherencies – of the Greens’s feel-good, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to political decision issues. For example, the Green desire to quickly phase out all nuclear power plants while imposing ever-tougher CO2 emission standards is both unrealistic and unaffordable. Voters need to recognize that abandoning nuclear power will lead to significantly higher electricity costs, with corresponding negative effects for German consumers and the country’s large manufacturing sector.

The fact that high-profile conservative leaders such as CSU defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the country’s most popular politician, have recently started to go after the Greens much more aggressively is telling. They, and no longer the SPD, are now the primary political opponents going into future elections. So who would be the most likely first Green chancellor? The favored candidate is Juergen Trittin, the abrasive 56-year-old Green Bundestag leader who already served as environment minister in the first Red-Green government under Chancellor Schroeder during 1998-2005, when he also oversaw the decision to abandon nuclear power. Stay tuned.

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