Streamlined Greens breathing down neck of feuding CDU/CSU

Leaders Baerbock and Habeck have boosted the Green party’s pragmatic profile and pushed membership to record levels

The leaders of the German Green party Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Their challenge on the campaign trail is to broaden their appeal without losing their core vote. Photograph: Getty Images

The leaders of the German Green party Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Their challenge on the campaign trail is to broaden their appeal without losing their core vote. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It was March 29th, 1983, in the Bonn Bundestag and Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had just sailed back to power with nearly 49 per cent of the vote. 

The most memorable image of the first parliamentary sitting captures chancellor Kohl’s shocked face, gazing at one of the 28 new Green MPs: a bearded bear of a man wearing a woolly sweater with a Nordic pattern.

“The Greens are a passing fad, we’ll just have to sit them out,” said Kohl later that year to US vice-president George Bush, predicting they would be “gone in two years”.

Nearly four decades on, stuck at 27 per cent in polls, the late Kohl’s CDU has only one realistic option for a fifth term after September’s election: an unprecedented pact with the Greens, breathing down its neck on 23 per cent.

After shedding first their sweaters, then their absolutist pacifist policies, the Greens have now set aside another mainstay: take-no-prisoners feuding between their leftist and pragmatic camps.

With five months to election day, the Greens are suspiciously well-organised. They have a programme, two popular leaders, and on Monday the party – once enslaved to grassroots decision-making – will allow the two to agree amongst themselves who will be their election campaign leader.

Is this still the Green Party?

Since Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck took over as leaders in 2018, they have boosted the party’s pragmatic profile and pushed membership to record levels. With a steady quarter of the vote, their challenge on the campaign trail is to broaden their appeal without losing their core vote. The question that will be answered on Monday is: with which leader?

Curious voters

Habeck is a 51-year-old philosopher, children’s book author and former state minister. With the look of a Nordic crime drama detective, Green insiders call him their charismatic front man, drawing in curious voters and softening the party’s image as a moral police that likes to ban things. 

In a recent book, Different from Here On, Habeck challenged two deep-rooted traditions in his own party: a binary friend-enemy view of the world and approach to politics; and the view that even striving for office is the start of the sellout.

“It’s the progressive forces in society, above all, who should want power,” he argued.

Despite Habeck’s popularity, the smart money in Berlin is on Annalena Baerbock to lead the election campaign. A former trampoline athlete and law graduate, the most common question the 40-year-old hears is about her suitability for office after just eight years in the Bundestag.

“Three years as party leader, MP and as mother of two small children – that toughens you up,” she said.

As the party’s go-to for policy detail, Baerbock has presented compromises on climate, foreign and even finance policy in the hope of attracting more centrist votes and, with that, the possibility of shaping policy in office.

With her arguments for a new ecological-economic balance, and an end to Germany’s balanced budget fetish, she is pushing an open door with CDU leader Armin Laschet. 

He has promised a “decade of renewal” with infrastructure spending and new opportunities for German industry in green technology.

Last week he recalled how, as a young MP in the 1990s Bundestag, he told older CDU figures: “ ‘The Greens aren’t so terrible’ ... a remark like that, at that time, was considered treason.”

But the diminutive CDU leader from Aachen is fighting for his political future against an alleged political ally: the wily Bavarian leader Markus Söder, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Dispute

Each wants to lead their CDU/CSU Bundestag alliance into the election, and Laschet has secured backing of party grandees. But after a week of bitter dispute, Söder’s siren song is luring over dozens of CDU MPs, who fear Laschet’s poor poll showing will cost them their seats.

With the Greens now a model of party discipline and the CDU/CSU at war, German politics in 2021 has put the Birkenstock sandal very much on the other foot. As one leading CDU figure warned this week: “We’re just three points in polls away from a chancellor Baerbock.” 

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