A new political force is shaking up Germany: Its leaders campaign in Bavarian beer tents wearing traditional dirndls and tour the country quoting the national anthem. One member has written a book about patriotism, another about “new conservatism.” One of its biggest issues is immigration.
Last month, it dealt Chancellor Angela Merkel such a blow at the ballot box — twice — that she announced her retreat. No, it is not the far right. It is a re-energized left. In recent years, the political energy has seemed to come almost exclusively from the right. But while the rise of the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has gotten the most attention, the liberal, pro-refugee Greens party has quietly expanded its following. Once an environmental protest movement, the Greens party is now the second- most popular party in the country, lagging behind Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union by only a few percentage points, polls show. Among women, it is No.1. It was also the Greens’ success that forced the chancellor’s decision not to run for re-election — shattering a host of entrenched narratives about voters and politics in Germany. The secret? “We are the anti-populists,” said Robert Habeck, the party’s co-leader, who published a book in 2008 about what he calls positive patriotism. “We see ourselves at the center of the nation, and that also means reclaiming the symbols of our country from the nationalists.” Indeed, if Alternative for Germany — which has campaigned on fears of a Muslim takeover and immigrant crime — embodies the backlash against the zeitgeist, then the Greens represent the backlash against the backlash and for the prevailing ethos of the country. The eroding appeal of the old catchall parties, left and right, has left a lot of votes up for grabs. Alternative for Germany has picked up many of them. But the Greens have emerged as “the alternative to the Alternative,” said Katharina Schulze, the 33-year-old Greens party star of the recent election in the state of Bavaria.
Over the past year, the Greens have steadily taken four times as many votes from Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance than from the AfD. They have shaved off even more votes from her left-leaning Social Democrat coalition partners. In fact, it is the long participation of the Social Democrats as a junior partner in successive Merkel governments that has left many voters yearning for a more defined and vocal opposition. The rise of the Greens has reinforced the new fragmentation of Germany’s political landscape into a field of midsize parties. Some now see the Greens taking over as the main center-left party, even as they have drawn support from around the political spectrum.
Their new strength has helped highlight new fault lines — between open and closed, pro-Europe and nationalist, but also between urban and rural, female and male, and western Germany and eastern Germany. The party has come a long way since its founding as a pacifist “anti-party party” in 1979. Opposition, not governing, was the aim in those early days. The first Greens lawmakers wore flowing beards and bluejeans in Parliament. Some knitted during debates; others nursed their babies or brought a pet. Today, many voters see the Greens as a party that has matured while remaining true to its principles. They are proenvironment, pro-Europe and unapologetically pro-immigration. Joschka Fischer, a leftist rebel who served as foreign minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, embodies his party’s evolution from radical protest to moderate middle. When Mr. Fischer was sworn in as Germany’s first Greens minister in the state of Hesse in 1985, he wore a pair of sneakers — a provocation at the time.
Three decades later, Mr. Fischer’s white sneakers are in a museum, and almost one in two German voters say they can imagine casting a ballot for the Greens. “The Greens have learned to do politics in the center,” said Mr. Fischer, whose cellphone ringtone is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Europe’s hymn. Voters, especially urban and educated Germans, relate to the Greens because the party represents a gentrified lifestyle, from healthy eating to a certain self-image of liberal nonconformism, that was once considered niche but has become mainstream well beyond the Greens’ core electorate. Mr. Fischer calls this “the subversive power of Green lifestyles.” One example he cites is Alice Weidel, a leading member of the AfD, a lesbian with a doctorate and a partner with whom she has two sons. If the Greens have become more mainstream, then the mainstream has also become more green. And the Greens have avoided becoming boring in the process.
Mr. Habeck, 49, the party co-leader from the far northern city of Lübeck, celebrated the recent election successes by diving into a crowd of supporters. In Hesse, where the party’s strong showing prompted Ms. Merkel’s surprise retreat, Greens posters celebrated “Heimat” — a fuzzy but evocative term denoting homeland and identity but traditionally associated with the right — underneath two intertwined hands, one white, one black. “You are Hessian, if you want to be Hessian,” the poster read. The party’s lead candidate in Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir, is the son of a Yemeni immigrant. Internet trolls warned that a vote for him was a vote for Shariah, or Islamic law. Yet Mr. Al-Wazir more than doubled the Greens’ share of the vote. He is the most popular politician in the state. For voters like Peter Weilbächer, a tax adviser in Wiesbaden, the capital of Hesse, “the Greens are credible where the others aren’t.” Mr. Weilbächer said he had always voted conservative, but this time, he switched to the Greens, calling them the “real conservatives.” “They want to conserve what we have: the environment, our prosperity and our values,” he added. That platform has already brought the Greens into government in nine of Germany’s 16 states, including Hesse, where Mr. Al-Wazir is the deputy to a premier from the Christian Democrats. In neighboring Baden-Württemberg, the Greens have become the strongest party, relegating Ms. Merkel’s conservatives to junior partners in government. A prolonged period of healthy economic growth and low unemployment has allowed voters, especially those in western states, to turn their attention to the environment. “We can afford to pay off our ecological conscience,” said Frauke Volpert, a 44-year-old photographer.
But the party also benefits from a long tradition of environmentalism in Germany that transcends ideology, from the progressive left to 19th-century Romantic nationalists describing the forest as the home of the German soul. In their founding days, the Greens also had a lot of interest from the right. “We had everything from leftists who wanted to sabotage electricity pylons to quasi neo-Nazis,” said Hubert Kleinert, a political scientist and former Greens lawmaker. The extremists were soon purged from the party. Today, the internal battles between idealists and pragmatists have mostly been resolved by a freshfaced new leadership. Not long ago, Bavaria, the mostly Roman Catholic, conservative bastion of the far south in western Germany, seemed impenetrable to the Greens. In October, the party became No. 2 in the state and won Munich, the capital. The Greens’ success in places like Bavaria, Mr. Fischer said, is beyond anything he had ever imagined. “It’s like the Greens becoming the second-biggest party in Texas,” he said. Still, Mr. Fischer, cautioned against hyping the current success of his party too much. He recalled the first time he was elected to Parliament in 1983. As he passed the chancellery, he told a colleague: “That’s the next stop.” That may still be a long way away.