Fast-growing Greens revive German left's hopes of power

As the SPD stumbles, revamped environmentalists have emerged as the driving force in a radical coalition challenging Chancellor Kohl
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Germany's demoralised left is about to get a wake-up call. As Chancellor Helmut Kohl basks in Buddha-like serenity, his Social Democrat opponents will be aimlessly zig-zagging their way through a bleak political landscape and hurling abuse at one another at their annual party congress this week.

If the congress runs according to script, the SPD will reluctantly re- elect its bumbling leader, Rudolf Scharping, and plunge deeper in the opinion polls. The task of catching up with the Christian Democrats, already 12 points ahead in the polls, will seem forlorn.

But despite the SPD's shambolic state, left-wing sympathisers have not given up hope of returning to power, this time on the coat-tails of the reincarnated Greens. For while the Social Democrats have wallowed in self- pity, the Greens have been scooping up votes in regional elections and rising in the national polls. Once the laughing stock of the political scene, Petra Kelly's heirs have grown up and now claim to be preparing for government.

Since last year's general elections, when they returned to the Bundestag with 49 MPs, after four years in the wilderness, the Greens have increased their presence in regional assemblies. Struggling to clear the 5 per cent threshold for seats in their first years of existence, their score now regularly runs into double figures. In last month's elections to the Berlin assembly, they captured more than 14 per cent of the vote. The Greens are part of the governing coalition in three federal states, and have high hopes of gaining administrative experience in a few more next year.

Among university students, an older age group than in Britain, Greens have become the party of first choice. According to a recent poll by Die Zeit, the SPD, which 20 years ago enjoyed 45 per cent support, now gets only 18 per cent of the campus vote. The Greens have 35 per cent.

Ludger Volmer, a Green MP, said: "A lot of natural SPD supporters are coming to us at the moment." His party knows all about the electoral consequences of domestic rows. Five years ago the Greens were turfed out of the federal parliament after a period of warfare between "Fundis", the fundamentalist wing which wanted permanent revolution, and the "Realos", the advocates of voter-friendly realpolitik.

The rout of 1990 allowed the Greens to regroup. The "Fundis" returned to their communes, and the "Realos" set about moulding a softer image. Even their opposition to the deployment of German troops abroad has been tempered by events in former Yugoslavia, notably the rape of Srebrenica.

"Zero growth", the economic orthodoxy of yesteryear, has become today's heresy. "We don't say we want zero growth, but we say growth must not be the guiding principle of the economy," explains Mr Volmer, spokesman of the rump left wing in the party.

Green membership is soaring, up by 10 per cent last year, but at 44,000 is not enough to compete with their bigger rivals. "We have problems at the local level, because we have been so successful at elections," Mr Volmer said. "Our activists get elected, so there is no one left to work the streets."

The "streets" are important to a movement that must stay close to its roots to survive. Despite their more mature posture, the Greens have not lost a sense of fun, or their earnest fanaticism about ecology, minorities and women. Other parties have encroached on these issues, but only the Greens carry conviction with the voters.

This could change if the party gets into national government. From the Green point of view, that would require the SPD doing better than at present, but not too well. Mr Volmer rejects the option of forming a coalition with Mr Kohl's party as "absolutely impossible". "We hope the SPD is stabilised, because they are part of our Red-Green coalition project," he says.

The mathematics of a Red-Green victory in the general elections in 1998 are complex. The Social Democrats must take votes on the right from a popular Chancellor, and leave the left flank unguarded. The odds are stacked against such a scenario, but the Greens have overcome bigger odds in the past. The rest is up to the SPD.