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The Rise of the German Greens

5:35 PM, Oct 12, 2010 • By ULF GARTZKE
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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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