Lost in the shuffle of last week's German elections was the plight of the Green party. It was understandable, of course. Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats dominated. The Free Democrats fell out of the Bundestag. And the CDU is meeting with Green party officials to discuss a potential partnership in government (though a grand coalition with the Social Democrats seems more likely). Still, how did the Greens go from 24 percent support in 2011 to a meager 8.4 percent last Sunday? And why didn't the most popular Green politician stump for his own party?
After years of living on the fringe, the Green party finally entered government with the SPD in 1998. The rot-grün coalition lasted until 2005, with Gerhard Schröder as chancellor and Joschka Fischer as the first Green foreign minister. The Germans called Fischer a "rock-star" politician, though it wasn't entirely a compliment. But during Fischer's tenure, German troops were deployed for the first time outside the country (to the Balkans) since, well, the 1940s. According to Fischer, the deployment was a humanitarian mission—indeed, it was an obligation. But his fellow Greens were less convinced and one party member, Jürgen Trittin, was particularly fierce in criticizing the foreign minister.
Fast forward to 2013—the Green party candidate is Jürgen Trittin. According to Germans with whom I've spoken, it's obvious that Fischer's absence is a matter of payback. It also didn't help that Trittin was embroiled in a scandal involving a Green party platform from the 1980s that endorsed "consensual" sex with children. One German tried to explain that it wasn't so scandalous if you take into account the context—it was the early 1980s and children's rights were a hot topic and it was all about free love. No, I wasn't buying it either. In any event, as noted by my colleague Christopher Caldwell, this occurred in Göttingen and overseeing the Green platform was Trittin, who has since expressed his regret.
The Greens had other problems as well. They were picked on for suggesting Germans go vegetarian on Thursdays—their opponents talked to voters about the threat of a nanny state. Worse, the SPD and Greens mentioned the possibility of imposing speed limits on the Autobahn. As Konstantin Heck, an FDP campaign adviser in Hesse, observed, having no speed limits is the equivalent of our Second Amendment. It is a right that many hold sacred. And finally, when Angela Merkel announced her government would move to eliminate nuclear energy by the 2020s, this robbed the Greens of one of their longstanding positions.
So the Greens had their work cut out for themselves. And nowhere to be seen was the rock-star Joschka Fischer. When I ask Germans of his whereabouts, they all tell me the same thing: "He's busy making money." The tabloid Bild even wrote about Fischer's refusal to comment on the election. Last March, during a Green party anniversary gala (celebrating 30 years in the Bundestag), Fischer also had nothing to say to the press.
But Fischer is apparently advising the Greens behind closed doors. Bild notes that Fischer's firm, KKLD, is helping the Green party in its campaign for the European parliament—to the tune of 150,000 euros.
As expected, the tabloid found the most unflattering picture of Fischer, who has struggled with his weight for some time. When I met the foreign minister in 2002, he was still lean and lamented how his exercise routine was thrown off kilter after 9/11. Fischer even wrote a book about his weight loss, Mein langer Lauf zu mir selbst (The long run to myself). After Fischer put back the pounds, a German diplomat told me a joke: Did you know Joschka is writing a sequel to his memoir? It's called Mein langer Lauf zu mir selbst ... und wieder zurück! (The long run to myself ... and back again).