Social democracy is in crisis. Bereft of ideas, shorn of its traditional voters and cornered by far-right and left-wing populists, once-succesful centre-left parties in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands have seen their governments ousted and their vote share plummet. It has become particularly bad in Germany, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – Europe’s oldest left-wing party – has been forced into yet another unwanted coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, after a risible election result last October. They have since seen their support collapse, and are in danger of being replaced as Germany’s second-biggest party by the far-right AfD, a favoured avatar of the British for the populist takeover of the European Union.
Yet there’s far more to this easy narrative than meets the eye. Far from heralding the death of centre-left politics in Germany, the collapse of the SPD has arguably given it a new lease of life. Ready to step into the breach and absorb millions of dissatisfied culturally-liberal, pro-European, economically left-of-centre young, highly-educated voters is Bündnis ’90/Die Grünen – the German Green Party.
It’s a curious thing. Just last year it might have been possible to write off the Greens as a one-off; a product of the rebellious generation of 1968 that had already had its day. The anti-authoritarian, environmentalist strain of those student protests has long since entered the mainstream, and the original proponents of those ideals – like former foreign minister Joschka Fischer – have now retired. It’s the very success of this movement that has shorn it of its appeal: since leaving government in 2005, the Greens have been unable to recapture the anti-establishment mood that first made it attractive to voters.
However, a closer look reveals a very different picture. Nationwide, the Greens have never been more popular or more successful. They’re in government in nine of Germany’s sixteen Länder, or federal states, and since 2011 have been the largest party in Baden-Württemberg. Across the country they have a deep pool of talented, popular politicians from which to draw, including Germany’s most popular, Cem Özdemir. While their federal numbers have remained stagnant, they have been busy building a solid base of support, and proven themselves a credible party of government everywhere they go.
The Greens nearly translated this into federal power. Late last year, they came within a whisker of joining a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ with the pro-business FDP and Merkel’s centre-right CDU. The collapse of negotiations in November made the FDP look petulant and the CDU look weak. In contrast, the Greens emerged unblemished, casting themselves as the adults in the room against the bickering centre-right parties; compared to the FDP they were serious and self-assured; compared to the CDU they seemed fresh and dynamic.
If the collapse of coalition talks has made them sit up and pay attention, its the Greens’ unequivocal support for refugees and immigration that will get liberal Germans voting for them.
The Greens’ unequivocal support for refugees and immigration will get liberal Germans voting for them.
Next month’s state election in Bavaria will be the first test. Here, the CSU – the Bavaria-only sister party of Merkel’s CDU – has been in power for six decades, but has been under siege by the AfD for several years. The usual strategy of mainstream parties is to tack rightwards when faced with a looming right-wing populist threat. Panicked CSU (and nationally, FDP) leaders have done just this; but nationalist, anti-immigrant voters have already been won over by the AfD and won’t be fooled by any attempt to imitate them from the centre-right, while existing CSU supporters may find a vote for the AfD more attractive if their own party is copying them anyway. In fact, all this triangulation will really do is alienate socially-liberal, middle-class CSU and FDP voters, for whom the Greens are the natural alternative.
And that’s why we’re seeing the Greens skyrocketing in the opinion polls; rather than the AfD, it is they that are set to leapfrog the SPD as the main opposition to the CSU. Just as mainstream parties across Europe pander to right-wing populists, the Bavarian election will demonstrate the enduring value of liberal, internationalist politics. It will be the first of many triumphs for the Greens.
If they can win in Bavaria, does that mean they can win in Germany? It’s far too early to draw conclusions, but a poll released by Forsa today showed the Greens above the SPD for the first time since the election, at 17% to 16%.
In 2018, politics is a battle between open and closed, between internationalism and nationalism. In Germany, the Greens and the AfD occupy those poles; with national politics so polarised, the Greens will benefit from being easily identified as the AfD’s opposite number. But whereas the AfD seem to have peaked at around 16% in the opinion polls, the Greens have a much, much higher ceiling. Compelling leadership, a proven track record in governments across the country, and a serious understanding of what makes liberal Germany tick at a time when too many politicians are tilting rightwards to chase that 16% make the Greens a genuine threat to the SPD.
Successive Grand Coalitions (GroKo) between the CDU and the SPD have prevented the centre-left from putting clear water between them and Merkel. Many Germans now see a vote for the SPD as pointless, given that the country’s political fragmentation makes a GroKo all but inevitable anyway. In 2021, the latest a new federal election can be held, more and more voters will see a vote for the Greens as a more convincing vote for change than one for a party that has participated in government as a junior partner for twelve of the last sixteen years.
You’d think this would be headline news across Europe. After all, when the AfD won 13% of the vote last October, Andrew Neil called it a bigger crisis than Brexit. Now a socially-liberal, environmentalist, pro-immigration party is on the rise, the monolingual British media isn’t interested – it simply doesn’t fit the narrative. Furthermore, our own Green Party, filled with eco-socialist nutters, has little in common with its German counterpart, making it difficult to draw any comparisons with British politics that our journalists need to stay interested.
But the Greens are quietly growing, quietly gathering cachet and credibility, and quietly setting the stage for a revolution on the centre-left. If things stay as they are, the Greens will write those headlines come 2021; they’ll displace the SPD and maybe – just maybe – Angela Merkel herself.