A Green people’s party

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 18 March 2016

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of New Zealand’s political system in the Key era is its broad stability.

That is not to say New Zealand politics is boring or there was no movement in the polls. However, the rough corridors in which the major parties are polling have barely changed for a decade.

National sits somewhere in mid- to high-40s. Labour fluctuates around the 30% mark. The Greens are doing the same some 20 percentage points below. Whoever then wins the next election is decided by minor swings and parties, the Epsom and Ohariu electorates and some post-election bargaining made necessary by the MMP electoral system.

But if you think it is a law of nature that we will always end up with a National or a Labour prime minister, think again. You only need to look at the shock results of last Sunday’s elections in another country operating under MMP: Germany.

What you may have heard about is that the elections in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt strengthened the right-wing Alternative for Germany (Afd). That was the populist backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. It catapulted the AfD well into double digit territory, even making it the second-largest party in Saxony-Anhalt on 24.2%.

However, in practical terms, the rise of the AfD does not matter much since none of the established parties is prepared to enter into any agreement with them.

What is far more interesting is another election result you may not have heard about: the meteoric rise of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg. It should also give the New Zealand Greens some food for thought.

Baden-Württemberg is a state of nearly 11 million people in the south-west of the country. It is most famous for the cuckoo-clocks from the Black Forest, Heidelberg’s old town and, of course, carmakers Porsche and Daimler, which are headquartered in Stuttgart.

It is one of the wealthiest regions in Europe. Its companies are highly competitive and heavily engaged in high technology R&D. Unemployment is virtually non-existent. And the state used to be one of the strongest of strongholds of political conservatism anywhere in Germany.

Since the formation of the state in 1952, the Christian Democrats had been the dominant political party. They were able to nominate the state premier for almost 60 years until the 2011 election.

Back then, the Fukushima disaster had put the future of nuclear power high on the political agenda. On the back of this, the Greens were able to rise to 24.2% – and narrowly form a coalition government with the Social Democrats as their junior partner (23.1%).

If the Christian Democrats regarded the 2011 election as a Fukushima-caused accident, last Sunday’s result proved them wrong. For the first time in German history, the Greens came out of the elections as the strongest party on 30.3%.

The Christian Democrats lost 12 percentage points and finished on 27.0%. The Social Democrats also lost 10 points and recorded a catastrophic 12.7%. Even the AfD on 15.1% was stronger than the once proud centre-left party.

With no nuclear disaster this time, the question is: What made the Greens so strong? How can it be that in one of the most conservative parts of Germany, in a state shaped by luxury car manufacturing and high technology, the Greens now set the political agenda?

Winfried Kretschmann, by GRÜNE Baden-Württemberg - originally posted to Flickr as Winfried Kretschmann spricht, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10869130

The answer lies in the person of the Greens’ leading candidate: State Premier Winfried Kretschmann, 67. His personality is just as conservative as the state he governs. A biology and chemistry teacher by training, he has been married for more than 40 years and is a father of three. His family lives in a country farmhouse.

Mr Kretschmann is active in the church, sings in the church choir and sits on the council of his local diocese.

With that kind of biography, he would have been a natural fit for the Christian Democrats. That he did not end up there was the result of his brief flirtation with socialism in the 1970s but more importantly his deep love for nature and his opposition to nuclear power.

When Mr Kretschmann first became state premier in 2011, business leaders were alarmed. How could a Greens-led government be anything but bad news for a state heavily dependent on the car industry? Five years later, even business groups and entrepreneurs praise his government as reliable and business-friendly.

Little wonder: Mr Kretschmann is a proponent of the EU/US trade agreement TTIP and has even made his peace with the car industry, saying things like “It’s important what kinds of cars we build, how environmentally friendly and efficient our mobility is.”

On Sunday, the Greens won the reward for the repositioning of their party. They have now firmly occupied territory in the centre and replaced the Christian Democrats as the party of – well, of what?

Perhaps the best description of the BaWü Greens is progressive conservatives, even though it sounds utterly oxymoronic. But that is just what they are.

They are a party that combines elements of social liberalism, cultural conservatism, a commitment to protecting the natural environment and a highly pragmatic attitude toward economic development.

With this combination, the Greens are not typical in the worldwide Green movement. But then again they are not typical anyway because unlike other Green parties they have left the status of a fringe party behind. Mr Kretschmann’s party has effectively made itself the party of the establishment, a big tent people’s party.

Here in New Zealand, such a shift of the Greens to the centre-ground of politics may seem unimaginable. But is it?

By selecting James Shaw as their co-leader last year, the New Zealand Greens have made it clear that they are keen to venture beyond their traditional clientele. So far, it has not resulted in any noticeable increase in the party’s polling but it may well be the beginning of that journey.

If Mr Shaw needs any idea of how long this journey could be, he might want to consult with Mr Kretschmann. When he first got elected to the state parliament, he was two years younger than Mr Shaw is today. Which probably means there is a remote chance of Mr Shaw becoming prime minister in the 2040s.

The rise of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg should provide food for thought to the Greens – and perhaps even more so to National. If Mr Shaw and his colleagues took a lesson from Mr Kretschmann, New Zealand politics could look quite different in the future.