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Merkel’s Popularity Surge Puts German Greens on the Back Foot

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/24/2020 Raymond Colitt
Angela Merkel in a blue shirt: Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, arrives in the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, June 18, 2020. © Bloomberg Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, arrives in the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

(Bloomberg) -- The Greens are struggling to sustain their momentum as Covid-19 upends German politics.

The party led the polls in Germany last year but their rise has been arrested by the resurgence of the Christian Democrats, boosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s measured handling of the pandemic. With an election due next year, the Greens have slipped back below 20%, barely half the level of Merkel’s CDU-led bloc, and Co-Chairman Robert Habeck, once tied as the nation’s most popular politician, now ranks a distant seventh.

That’s a blow to those hoping that the post-Merkel era might see a step change in Berlin that would place Germany at the forefront of the European Union’s push to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the next government is more likely to mean just an incremental change from the current one.

The Greens will probably still be the only party willing and able to give the Christian Democrats a majority after next year’s general election. But they are unlikely to have enough political capital to really set the agenda with neither of Merkel’s likely successors boasting particularly green credentials.

“From today’s standpoint, the Greens would be the smaller partner, a majority-maker,” said Thomas Jaeger, a professor of politics at the University of Cologne.

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That’s a comedown from earlier this year when Berlin insiders were speculating that next year’s election could produce the first Green chancellor, or when French President Emmanuel Macron met with Habeck and co-chair Annalena Baerbock for an unprecedented three-hour chat at February’s Munich Security Conference. In January, Habeck had made his debut at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

After emerging from the anti-nuclear movement and the left-wing fringe in the 1980s, the Greens served eight years with the Social Democrats before Merkel came to power in 2005, and they have made no secret of their ambitions for a return to power.

The party has steadily moved toward the center -- so much so, that on its 40th anniversary in January former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble called them a “dead ordinary” party. They’ve also established themselves as a major force in German politics. Even after their recent dip, they are still the country’s second-most popular party.

“We are at about the level we were in the last European election, historically our best result nationwide,” Michael Kellner, the party’s political managing director, said in an email. “We’re not going to be driven crazy if it goes up or down a few percentage points.”

‘I’m not sure’

Whether the Greens can get back into position to challenge the CDU’s ascendancy before next year’s vote will depend on the economy and the climate, as well as the virus.

Another harsh drought or an international climate crisis like last year’s fires could reignite support beyond young, urban professionals and the CDU itself will be something of an unknown quantity fighting its first election in a generation without Merkel as the chancellor candidate.

On the other hand, a prolonged recession would mean a struggle for the Greens, who are still seen as inexperienced on the economy.

“I’m not sure it’s the right party at the right time to ensure Germany’s prosperity, there’s lots of uncertainty and fear,” said Richard Martin, a former party member who runs a small IT company in the suburbs of Berlin.

The party’s unbridled pro-immigration stance and apparent hunger for power don’t sit entirely well with him either. “They’ve lost authenticity,” he said.

New Challenges

The pandemic posed a whole new set of challenges to the Greens at a moment when they were starting to be taken seriously as a mainstream force.

At first they backed the lockdown but then switched tack to criticize the social inequality of the measures, insisting the post-corona world needs to be a more equitable and sustainable place. On a recent TV talk show, Habeck highlighted the need for larger pig sties.

The bigger problem though was that incumbents in Berlin and Brussels elbowed their way onto traditional Green territory with billions of euros for climate policy as part of their efforts to shore up the economy.

But their future as a coalition partner for the post-Merkel CDU still has an air of inevitability about it in Berlin. Not least because the party’s existing partner, the SPD, is determined to go into opposition to rebuild when the current term ends. That alone means that the Greens will still have some leverage.

“It’s clear that the Greens won’t have the power to advance the climate agenda they want,” Oskar Niedermayer, profesor emeritus of political science at the Free University in Berlin, said in a phone interview. “But they also have an important bargaining chip because there may be no other coalition option.”

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