The Green party: Getting used to opposition
Deutsche Welle - Germany

The Green party: Getting used to opposition

Having spent seven years in government with the Social Democratic Party, the Greens had to use the last legislature creating a meaningful opposition to its former partner. Now this opposition faces its first major test.

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The Green party’s electoral program makes for dramatic reading. It speaks of a minimum wage, raising unemployment benefit and higher taxes for top-earners. But for many, the credibility of the Greens is compromised by their failure to produce these radical policies between 1998 and 2005, when the party held ministerial positions.

Despite the conservatism of its time in government, the Green party has radical politics in its roots. The party was founded in 1980, unifying a whole array of regional movements frustrated by mainstream politics. Until then, environmental issues could comfortably be ignored by mainstream politicians, even though there was wide public disaffection with the government’s environmental policy, in particular its commitment to nuclear power.

Its alternative agenda and informal style quickly attracted leftist veterans of the 1968 movement. Adopting a phrase coined by one of its founding leaders Petra Kelly, the Greens considered themselves the “anti-party party.”

This irreverence found iconic expression in 1985, when Joschka Fischer, who would later become Gerhard Schroeder’s foreign minister, was sworn in as the new environment minister of the state of Hesse wearing sneakers. Immediately nicknamed the “sneaker minister,” Fischer would become the Green party’s most talismanic leader.

Leaning to the Left

Officially, the party is campaigning to enter a “red-green” coalition with the SPD, but since the Left party has been making ground in state level governments, the Greens have shifted their agenda noticeably towards the left. This strategy is both a reaction to the financial crisis and a chance for the party to distance themselves from the increasingly centrist, faltering SPD. Indeed, the Green party’s campaign program has been greeted approvingly by Left party leader Oskar Lafontaine.

Last year, Juergen Trittin, the Greens’ top candidate and Gerhard Schroeder’s former environment minister, became the first Green politician to declare that the party was open to a coalition with the Left party at state level. The declaration met with much consternation within his own party, and revealed the Green party’s internal indecision. In truth, many Green voters, traditionally from an upper-middle class demographic, have a conservative temperament, a fact underlined by a recent poll published in news magazine Focus, which showed that Green voters would prefer Angela Merkel as chancellor to the SPD’s candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. As the old joke goes, the Green party is “the FDP with bicycles.”

Two recent declarations have made the Green party’s hopes of entering government this time round desperately slim. The first came from Trittin, who at the end of July made shutting down Germany’s older nuclear power stations a coalition condition. This made a so-called “Jamaica” coalition with the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party impossible. The second came when Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP, ruled out a coalition with the SPD and the Greens. The Greens have thus begun to accept their new role as a party of opposition.

Economic and environmental issues linked

But despite a more social economic policy, the Green party’s most uncompromising plans are still those that deal with environment protection. In power, they would put climate protection into the German constitution, and aim to run the country entirely on renewable energy by 2030. Programs for building new nuclear power, coal power and underground carbon capture and storage plants would all be scrapped. They also aim to introduce two million electric cars to Germany’s streets by 2020.

The Greens are trying to convince the electorate that the climate crisis and the financial crisis are corollaries of one another, and that only by tackling the two together will either be solved. This means giving Germany’s industry a complete ecological overhaul, and creating a tax structure for industry that encourages different processes and different products. In the words of one of their campaign phrases, the aim is to “make the blue collar green.”

The labor market, the Greens claim, calls for a similar wholesale re-think. They have devised a plan that they say will create a million new jobs in the next four years, by reducing the incentive to work illegally, and investing in renewable energies, renovating buildings, organic agriculture, healthcare, and social work. They also hope to address poverty by introducing a minimum hourly wage of 7.50 euros ($10.75), and increasing long-term unemployment benefit to 420 euros a month.

Education and social policy

The Green party are also determined to create a further 500,000 study places in Germany, despite planning to get rid of tuition fees. Instead, each student is to receive 200 euros from the state, going up to 800 euros for students from lower income earning families. The Greens have also joined the growing pressure to reform Germany’s tiered school system, and are calling for all children to be taught together until grade 9.

Data protection became a central issue in the last legislature, with scandals about large corporations hacking into employees’ e-mail accounts, and new amendments to the BKA law, which give the police greater power to search computers remotely and to store personal data for longer. The Green party is hoping to reverse some of these amendments, and to put personal data under the protection of the constitution.

True to its libertarian temperament, the Green party is in favor of broadening democracy by extending the right of citizens to force plebiscites on a national, not just a state level. The Greens also want to lower the voting age to 16 and extend voting rights to immigrants.

Foreign policy

The party’s traditional roots in the peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s are still evident in their campaign policies. They are determined to scrap Germany’s compulsory military service (Germany is one of the few remaining NATO countries with a conscripted army), and to reduce the size of the army generally. They also want to seize the initiative of US President Barack Obama’s election to push for better relations with Iran and North Korea. The Green party is also the German party with the most faith in the European Union and would like to see the EU’s profile raised in the world.

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