Blue Greens

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JULY 8, 2002

Blue Greens

BERLIN, GERMANY

It's evening, and the only light on the second floor of Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, the building where members of the Bundestag have their offices, is coming from Cem Oezdemir's suite. Inside, the 36-year-old Oezdemir, who in 1994 became the first person of Turkish descent ever elected to the Bundestag, is describing his hopes for Germany. "What is my goal? It is the kind of hyphenated identity that takes place in your country," he says. "I am Moslem by birth; I am a Moslem like Catholics are Catholics. I am a German citizen of Turkish origin and Muslim religion."

Oezdemir is a member of the Green Party, which he first joined at age 15. That Oezdemir, a kind of Turkish-German equivalent of a 1950s-era African American civil rights activist, chose the Greens says a lot about the party-- all of it good. The Greens are the only German party unabashedly promoting an American-style immigration system, which would offer citizenship and integration to Germany's long-marginalized minorities. They have also taken the lead in promoting energy conservation and women's rights. Once merely a left- wing protest movement, the Greens have in the last decade shed their eco- utopianism and dogmatic pacifism and have become a competitive, responsible political party. In 1998, in a historic move, Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) invited the Greens into government. The Greens' leader, Joschka Fischer, has become foreign minister, a position in which he has distinguished himself through his aggressive support for military intervention in the Balkans and Afghanistan and for the eastward expansion of the European Union.

That's the good news. The bad news is that in the four years since the Greens' ascension, the party has been in political free fall. Its share of the vote has dropped in 17 straight state elections. (Germany, like the United States, is a federation of states, each with its own government.) And if the polls are to be believed, the Greens have been displaced by the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) as Germany's third-largest party. The FDP currently enjoys as much as 12 percent support in national polls for this September's parliamentary election, while the Greens have fallen to 6 percent. Unless the Greens engineer a dramatic comeback, they will be ousted from government this fall. And if their support falls below 5 percent, they will, according to Germany's system of proportional representation, lose all their seats in the Bundestag. Without the Greens, German politics will lose its most important voice against both the rising xenophobia of the German right and against the rising anti-globalization militancy of the hard left. And in a country in which economic stagnation is feeding these furies, that absence would be costly indeed.

Although the first Green Party sprung up in (of all places) Tasmania, the international movement took much of its inspiration from the German Greens. Established in 1979 by a group that included Fischer, future parliamentary leader Petra Kelly, sculptor Joseph Beuys, and philosopher Rudolf Bahro, the Greens brought together Germany's burgeoning environmental and anti-nuclear movements and a motley assortment of other postwar radicalisms, including radical feminism, Maoism, and pacifism. In 1983 Germany became the first European country to elect a Green to parliament; the following year the party won seven seats in the European Parliament--more than all of Europe's other Green parties put together.

The Greens also provided many of the ideological underpinnings of the international movement. Bahro was the movement's first philosopher. A former East German Communist functionary, he had been jailed in 1977 for outlining a neo-Marxist, but democratic, alternative to East Germany's "really existing socialism." After his release in 1979 Bahro emigrated to the Federal Republic, where he propounded an ecological post-Marxism that called on capitalists and the proletariat to unite to save the planet. The Green's first platform in 1980 advocated that "[t]he capitalist and state-communist economic modes must be replaced by a reasonable alternative based on frugal and equitable exchange with the materials and forces of nature, a resolute eradication of social privileges, and the realization of technology on a humane scale." There was also widespread agreement that NATO should be dissolved and the German military disbanded.

But if the German Greens were initially characterized by otherworldly utopianism, the party gradually clawed its way toward real-world respectability. During the '80s the party was bitterly divided between "Fundis," or Fundamentalists, and "Realos," or Realists. The Fundis, dominated by Marxists and radical ecologists, wanted the Greens to remain a movement that would make non-negotiable demands on the capitalist state and then, when they were not met, take to the streets. They insisted that elected party officials rotate out of office after two years and shunned coalitions with the SPD. Fischer's Realos, by contrast, argued for a competitive political party that sought governing coalitions with the SPD and moderated many of the party's radical planks--such as its demand for immediate withdrawal from NATO.

By the end of the '80s the Realos had won the organizational battle; Green legislators no longer had to rotate out of office, and the party's elected leadership increasingly became its political leadership. But the ideological battle continued through the '90s and was only conclusively resolved this March when the Greens drafted a new party platform that superseded their 1980 document. The same party that had called on German soldiers to desert during the Gulf war buildup now supported sending them to Afghanistan. And the party that had pronounced capitalism incompatible with planetary well-being has now promised to meet its environmental demands within a "social-market economy."

In its initial years the Green Party grew rapidly despite its internal divisions, winning office in six states from 1980 to 1983; and in the 1983 federal elections they boosted their 1980 total fourfold to 5.6 percent. In the early '80s the Greens essentially exploited the political vacuum left by the SPD and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), both of whom slighted environmental and feminist concerns and supported the Ronald Reagan administration's cold war agenda. And the party's demographic constituency reflected its ideological focus: Its support was heavily concentrated among college students and recent graduates. About 60 percent of Green voters were under age 35, and 80 percent were under age 45.

But to the surprise of many, as the '80s gave way to the '90s, and these young Greens grew older and took white-collar and civil service jobs, they continued to vote for the Greens. The typical Green voter became a 35- to 40- year-old, college-educated working woman. And while the Fundis continued to make trouble (throwing paint at Fischer in a May 1999 Green Party convention called to debate the party's support for NATO intervention in Kosovo), the Realos moved the party further and further toward the moral and political center.

The SPD and CDU responded to the Greens' rise by trying to co-opt their agenda. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the SPD called for the "beginning of the end of nuclear power." And both the SPD and CDU elevated women into their parliamentary leadership and began championing new parental- leave and rape legislation. But the SPD remained too oriented toward blue- collar unionism to appeal to the Greens' middle-class constituents; and the CDU and its Bavarian branch, the Christian Social Union, were too socially conservative. The Greens' biggest competitor, in fact, was Germany's longtime third party, the libertarian, pro-business FDP, who had long enjoyed support from college-educated professionals. But more and more, these voters were attracted to the Greens' idealism and repelled by the FDP's self-definition as "the party of the well-off." In 1994 the Greens surpassed the FDP, garnering 7. 3 percent of the vote, compared with the FDP's 6.9 percent. In 1998 the Greens' vote declined to 6.7 percent, but the FDP's fell to 6.2 percent. With Schroeder's SPD outpacing Helmut Kohl's CDU, the Greens gained their first-ever taste of power.

Since then, however, the FDP has begun to right itself--it has mounted personality-driven American-style campaigns that present its free-market agenda as benefiting all Germans. And the Greens have begun to falter. Perhaps the biggest reason is the party's lack of a clear economic agenda. The Greens had always presented themselves as the post-materialist party of ecology, social equality, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence--never of jobs. That was fine when Germany's unemployment rate was less than 5 percent, but it became an enormous liability in the late '90s.

In 1998, with the economy floundering, the Greens proposed tripling the price of gasoline in order to reduce German oil consumption--a callous plan that backfired monumentally. In the crucial May 2000 elections in North Rhine- Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, the Green vote fell from 10 percent to 7 percent, while the FDP's rose from 4 percent to 10 percent. And in elections this April in the economically depressed Eastern state of Saxony- Anhalt, the Greens polled 2 percent, while the FDP--which ran on a promise to create jobs--garnered 13 percent, and the former Communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) won 20 percent. The Greens' only significant electoral success in the last four years has been in Freiburg, a prosperous university town where a Green candidate won the mayoral contest this May. Why did the Greens do so well in Freiburg? Perhaps because it's known as the solar- energy capital of Europe.

German voters have also rejected the Greens because of their outspoken support for immigration reform. The party has long advocated allowing any child of immigrants born in Germany to choose to become a citizen. But Oezdemir acknowledges, "Today the majority does not accept that. They still see the future of the country as the future of Germans." That became painfully obvious last September in Hamburg, where an election dominated by fear of immigrant crime saw the Greens plummet from 14 percent to 8.5 percent of the vote and saw a new, anti-immigrant Law and Order Party garner nearly 20 percent.

And while the Greens have lost mainstream support because of their views on immigration and the environment, their renunciation of pacifism has prompted defections from young voters, many of whom identify with the radical left. Some of these ex-Greens back the formerly Communist PDS, which opposed German intervention in Afghanistan. Others have turned to militant, anti-globalization groups like ATTAC, which is reputed to have as many as 10,000 German supporters and which led the street protests against President George W. Bush's visit in May. When Green Chairwoman Claudia Roth tried to address a rally before the protests, young demonstrators stormed the stage, accusing the Greens of being "warmongers" and "hypocrites."

With the party tanking at the polls, some left-wing intellectuals say the entire Realo effort to turn the Greens into a mainstream party should now be abandoned. Margit Mayer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin and coeditor of The German Greens, blames the Greens' difficulties on their decision "to follow the logic of a political party, that is, subject themselves to the rules of party competition and give up the social-movement side of their origin." But it would be a grave mistake for the Greens to try to recreate their movement past, which was based on an illusion of apocalyptic change. And embracing the Fundi policies of ATTAC or of Ralph Nader's retrograde American Greens (who denounced their German counterparts' support for the war in Afghanistan) would be even more disastrous.

The far better strategy, politically and morally, is to follow Fischer's realism to its logical extension and become a "third way" party modeled after Tony Blair's "new Labour." A faction called the "new Greens" thinks the party should push the neoliberal economic agenda that SPD Prime Minister Schroeder proposed in 1998 but abandoned in the face of pressure from Germany's powerful labor unions. These "new Greens" remain committed to a strong welfare state but want to modify regulations that impede economic growth. And while committed to energy conservation, they would pursue it through market incentives. Combine that economic agenda with Fischer's internationalism and Oezdemir's support for immigration reform, and you have an intriguing, even inspiring, political party- -the kind of party that Germany, mired in a decade-long slump and suffering a rising tide of nativism, desperately needs.

That party won't be competing in this fall's election, however. Still burdened by its roots in the post-materialist left, the Greens aren't yet aggressively advocating a sensible agenda for market-based economic growth. And unless the party offers jobs to an ailing German electorate, it will remain unpalatable or irrelevant to voters outside places like Freiburg. The challenge will come after the Greens' nearcertain drubbing this September. If the Greens use their defeat to finally transform themselves into a party of conservation, democracy, and prosperity, they could offer just the kind of moral and economic alternative Germany needs to dig itself out of its deep and troubling malaise. If they don't, that task will be left to others--a frightening prospect because, today at least, Germany's political landscape resembles the second floor of Jakob-Kaiser-Haus on the night I visited Cem Oezdemir. Only one light is on.

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posted in: berlin, afghanistan, east germany, germany, united states, balkans, european parliament, european union, free democratic party (fdp), german greens, german party, green party, greens, north atlantic treaty organization, social democratic party, the greens, gerhard schroeder, joschka fischer, joseph beuys, petra kelly, rudolf bahro, tasmania

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