Greens unlikely to emulate German success

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 5 April 2011

The Australian Greens’ ambitions were dealt a blow in the recent NSW state election. They may have won the seat of Balmain, but their overall primary vote barely moved above the 10 per cent mark. To add insult to injury, the Greens are struggling to fend off a challenge by Pauline Hanson for a seat in the upper house.

On the other side of the world, green is a far more popular colour. A day after the NSW election, the German Greens celebrated their greatest electoral success to date. In Baden-Wurttemberg state a Greens politician will become head of the state government, a historic first. Meanwhile, the once proud Social Democrats, Germany’s equivalent of the Labor Party, have been relegated to the status of a junior coalition partner.

Why is it that the Australian Greens cannot break out of their ghetto while their German friends are about to replace the traditional party of the Left?

In the global political ecosystem, the German and the Australian Greens belong to the same family of parties but they are nevertheless quite distinctive.

The Australian Greens were only officially founded in 1992 at a time when the German Greens could already look back to an eventful party history. They first entered a state parliament in 1979, federal parliament in 1983, and became a party of government in the state of Hesse in 1985.

By the early 90s, the German Greens had already lost most of their radical wing. This made it possible for them to enter a federal coalition government in 1998, in which the charismatic Joschka Fischer became a popular foreign minister. The party, which started its life an anti-establishment movement, had itself become a part of the establishment. It was often displaying pragmatism, where the early Greens had only ever celebrated ideological purity.

Thus it was an irony, but no pure coincidence that Germany was led to its first war after World War II under a Social Democrat-Greens coalition. Where the party pacifists had once campaigned under the “no more war” slogan, Fischer led his party to war in Kosovo under the motto “no more Auschwitz”.

For the Greens it was a long way to the centre ground of German politics. It would be wrong, however, to assume only the Greens had moved in this process. They also succeeded in pulling the centre towards them. They were skilful in shifting the environment debate and presenting themselves as the intellectual avant-garde.

Recycling one’s rubbish, saving energy and fighting nuclear power were once regarded as pastimes of long-bearded ecological weirdos. The Greens transformed these issues into the political mainstream. Other parties then had to follow the new environmental agenda, however grudgingly. Mainstream society and the Greens have moved closer towards each other. Society has certainly become greener, but the Greens have also done their part by leaving their most outlandish positions behind, such as early proposals for a legalisation of sex with minors.

The culmination of this is the Baden-Wurttemberg election result. The Greens’ lead candidate, Winfried Kretschmann, 62, is an ethics, chemistry and biology teacher who looks as conservative as his provincial dialect sounds.

Married for 36 years, three children, and a member of the Catholic Church’s top lay body: his personal circumstances would have suited him well for a Christian Democrats career. And when Kretschmann, who frequently quotes Hannah Arendt in his speeches, talks about “freedom as the ultimate goal of all politics”, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a liberal. Kretschmann’s conservative personality certainly raised the Greens’ prospects in Baden-Wurttemberg, a socially traditional state.

Other issues helped. The Fukushima disaster seemed to confirm the Greens’ long-held opposition to nuclear power. The Greens were also the party most opposed to a controversial underground train station in the state capital of Stuttgart. State elections are also often used to send a message to unpopular federal governments, and the Greens offered themselves as conveyors of protest votes.

In some ways, circumstances in Baden-Wurttemberg were thus quite unique and it is not clear whether the Greens’ success can be replicated in other states, let alone in national elections. But the Greens have demonstrated their ability to usurp the lead role on the Left. That space had been abandoned by the Social Democrats, unwilling or unable to define what social democracy means. The Greens have no such problems. They only have to follow the zeitgeist that they created.

Of course, not everything in the German Greens’ agenda is as conservative or even liberal as it first seems. Behind the traditionalist Kretschmann stands a party which still holds some unreconstructed Leftist views.

However, in a direct comparison between the German and the Australian Greens, there is no doubt that the former are far less radical and more pragmatic than the latter.

The Greens’ pragmatism is a result of decades of political representation. The party has been involved at all levels of government: local, state and national. It had to make painful compromises with different partners. The German Greens are in formal and informal coalitions with all other political parties, including the conservative Christian Democrats. To ask whether this would be imaginable for the Australian Greens is to answer it.

It is doubtful the Australian Greens will be able to follow the German Greens’ example. The Australian electoral system favours a two-party state, which reduces the chances of any third party getting more experience and becoming more pragmatic. So for the time being the Greens movement may only flower elsewhere.

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