In Germany’s Green Party he is known as “Moses”, and now 67-year-old Wilfried Kretschmann may be about to live up to his nickname – by leading the way towards what Chancellor Angela Merkel’s more liberal-minded supporters see as the blueprint for a political promised land.
Mr Kretschmann has become a Green party icon overnight. In Sunday’s dramatic state elections, which saw a major swing to the populist far right, the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg state secured the biggest victory the Greens have ever achieved in Germany, winning 30.3 per cent of the vote.
The result was remarkable, not least because it put the Greens three points ahead of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) – the dominant political force in the state since 1945. Just as notable, however, was that Mr Kretschmann won after voicing unflinching support for Ms Merkel’s open-door refugee policies – at the very moment her own party was busy distancing itself from her over the issue.
Now, Mr Kretschmann is also being seen as a solution to Ms Merkel’s national dilemma: how to survive in office, beyond the next general election, even as the anti-migrant clamour continues to grow on the right.
A Catholic from a Prussian refugee family, Mr Kretschmann conceded in an interview that he “prayed every day” for Angela Merkel at the height of last summer’s refugee crisis which led to an influx of more than a million migrants in 2015. A veteran of the increasingly mainstream Green Party, he has dismissed right-wing critics of Ms Merkel’s refugee policies, calling them irresponsible people who wanted to “close borders and endanger Europe”. That did not go down well with the regional branch of Ms Merkel’s CDU.
The CDU’s candidate in Baden-Wurttemberg, Guido Wolf, had tried to distance himself from Ms Merkel because he feared huge gains by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which took 15 per cent of the vote in the west German state. At one stage insiders said Mr Wolf’s allies were reluctant to have Ms Merkel as a speaker during the campaign because she might lose them votes.
Mr Krestchmann’s victory shows how Ms Merkel has polarised Germany and upset its politics. Her refugee policies have not only handed parliamentary seats to one of the most vociferously anti-migrant parties in post-war Germany; they have also won her some unaccustomed bedfellows.
In Rhineland-Platinate state, where the CDU candidate Julia Klöckner also distanced herself from Ms Merkel on the refugees issue, victory was secured by Malu Dreyer, the region’s Social Democrat leader, who backed Ms Merkel’s policies to the hilt.
Ms Merkel’s true opponents are in the AfD and among some in her own conservative coalition parties, which are split over her pro-refugee policy. Now Mr Kretschmann is expected to take his Green Party in Baden-Württemberg into a regional coalition with Ms Merkel’s party. It would be the first time that conservatives and Greens have teamed up in one of Germany’s biggest states, and some within her own party may not like it.
But there are not a few Merkel supporters, both within and outside her party, who would welcome it if, after the next national election, a similar constellation was formed in Berlin.
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