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Germany’s smaller parties don’t tend to field candidates for the top post of chancellor—a pointless gesture when the most they can hope for is a junior role in a coalition led by one of the two big Volksparteien, or “people’s parties.”
That’s why it was a momentous occasion for the Greens to announce their first such candidate on Monday: Annalena Baerbock, who is now the only female candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is retiring after September’s federal election.
The Greens have served in federal government in previous years. Before Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) took over in 2005, they were junior partners to Gerhard Schröder’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) for two terms. But with less than 9% of the national vote, they didn’t pretend to have a shot at the top spot.
That’s all changed now.
For the past month, the Greens have been polling solidly at 20% or more, their fortunes climbing amid ebbing support for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU)—collectively known as “Union.” Meanwhile, the SPD, which is currently the junior partner in a long-running “Grand Coalition” with Union, remains stuck in third place, as it has been for the past two and a half years.
“I am thoroughly convinced that this country needs a fresh start to get through this new, challenging decade,” Baerbock said Monday, accepting her nomination as the face of what is now arguably Germany’s third Volkspartei.
In a statement, the party noted that this election will be the first in which a CDU or SPD chancellor is not a foregone conclusion. “We have the chance to become the strongest political force in Germany,” it said.
At the age of 40, Baerbock is only slightly younger—by 11 months—than the party she steers along with co-leader Robert Habeck.
At their formation back in 1980, the West German Greens were much like the Green parties that dot the global political landscape today: strongly environmentalist and pacifist, pro-cannabis and anti-nuclear. It was a fringe party, so distant from the mainstream that it tolerated a pro-pedophilia faction in its ranks for years (though it should be noted that the pro-business Free Democratic Party also has some uncomfortable history there).
A lot has changed. In 1993, the Greens merged with East Germany’s Alliance 90; even today, they are properly known as Alliance 90/The Greens. Five years later, they found themselves in government, and for some it was disillusionment time. The Greens were unable to stop Germany’s participation in the Kosovo conflict and the invasion of Afghanistan. And while they did manage to kick-start the gradual phaseout of nuclear power, the timetable was longer than many activists had hoped for.
After leaving government when Merkel came to power in 2005, the Greens went on to build up a strong presence at the state level. Of the 16 German Länder, 11 have coalition governments with Greens in them, and the party even led the most recent administration in the state of Baden-Württemberg.
That means the Green Party contesting September’s election is one with plenty of governing experience at all levels. It no longer has the monopoly on environmental issues that it once did—the rise of the Greens has prompted even Union to step up on that front—but it has become a standout in other ways. For example, the Greens are the only major German party to support liberalization of immigration laws so people could gain German citizenship without forfeiting their other citizenships.
Baerbock is certainly no traditional candidate for the chancellery. A former trampolinist (who won bronze three times in the German championships) and journalist, she went on to study law in Hamburg and London, before becoming a member of the German parliament in 2013. She does not have any governing experience, but she has pushed for a clear Green platform that would accelerate the phaseout of coal and—shock horror—impose an 80 mph speed limit on the autobahn.
On Monday, Baerbock was enthusiastically endorsed as the Green candidate by Habeck, a writer and philosopher. This show of grace and unity will not have been lost on the German voting populace, coming as it did during an extremely fractious moment for Union.
In January, the centrist Armin Laschet—currently the state premier of North Rhine–Westphalia—became leader of the CDU. Ordinarily, that would mean he’s a shoo-in to be the Union candidate. But these are not ordinary times.
Markus Söder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, would also like to be chancellor, and he refuses to let go of the possibility. CDU party grandees favor the centrist, Merkel-esque Laschet, but the far more charismatic and conservative Söder—whose profile has risen during the pandemic, owing to his backing of tough measures—is more popular with voters, and he knows it. The CSU has never successfully fielded a candidate for chancellor before, but Söder is game, and the CDU and CSU may now have to poll their memberships to break the impasse.
Meanwhile, the SPD’s candidate is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is not a terribly inspiring figure and who also finds himself caught up in the Wirecard fraud scandal: The regulatory failures that missed the now-collapsed payment firm’s accounting irregularities happened under his watch, and the Greens are using this to attack him.
Recent polling suggests that if Laschet were to become the Union candidate, Baerbock would be the most popular choice among herself, Laschet, and the SPD’s Scholz. However, it also seems that Söder would prove more popular with the public than Baerbock, if he became the Union candidate.
Union is still the most popular party, and the smart money would still be on its heading up the next governing coalition, perhaps with the Greens and the FDP as junior partners. (The collapse in support for SPD over recent years has much to do with its failure to exert influence in its coalitions with the CDU/CSU, so yet another Grand Coalition seems extremely unlikely.)
However, there are still five months to go before the election, and it’s certain to be a volatile period. Public dissatisfaction with the Union/SPD government’s handling of the pandemic continues to grow, and the CDU has recently been damaged by mask procurement scandals that forced the resignation of two of its lawmakers.
So it is possible that, by the end of this year, Germany could end up with a Green-led coalition that also features the SPD and another party, perhaps the right-wing FDP or the far-left Left; the realignment needed to get both those smaller parties into the same coalition would probably be too extraordinary even for these times.