The Conservatives’ New Favorite Color

While the future effects of global warming are still hotly debated, the one very real thaw it has already produced is between the world's environmentalists and their foes on the political right. Think John McCain's embrace of the climate-change issue, or the greening of Britain's Tories under their leader, David Cameron. The latest ice to break is between Germany's once radical, antiestablishment Green Party and their erstwhile archenemy, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). In a formerly unthinkable and possibly far-reaching realignment of German politics, conservatives and the Green Party have been entering alliances in local and regional parliaments, creating new power options for both parties—and a laboratory for breaking the logjam that has paralyzed German politics.

The latest and most significant test case of novel coalition-building has come in Hamburg, one of Germany's 16 federal states. In a replay of the national election in 2005 that brought Merkel to power at the head of an unwieldy grand coalition of CDU and Social Democrats (SPD), Hamburg's voters in February failed to give either the CDU or the SPD the needed majority to form a government. But instead of opting for another grand coalition of the two major parties—which in Berlin has led to predictable bickering and blockage—the CDU has hammered out a coalition agreement with the Greens. Together, the parties on May 7 reinstalled incumbent Hamburg Governor Ole von Beust.

The first such hookup at the state level had strong backing from Merkel, who sees it as widening the CDU's options for future coalitions, possibly at the national level. Ditto for Renate Künast, the Greens' leader in Parliament and main strategic thinker. Even the éminence grise of Germany's archconservatives, former Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber, gave his blessing to a marriage he once said was impossible. "The Greens aren't political street urchins anymore," Stoiber said earlier this month.

To understand what a radical shift this means for both parties, it helps to flash back to the 1980s, when the Greens first appeared on the scene. The CDU was a bastion of small-town, church-going, law-and-order conservatism that had happily ignored the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. In the CDU's weltanschauung, there was little place for immigrants, gays, or even working women. The contrast to the Greens couldn't have been starker. When their deputies first won election to the Bundestag in 1983, the Greens were a hodgepodge of Maoists, street fighters and radical counterculturalists who'd vowed to overturn "the system." The established parties treated them as freaks—and no one more so than the conservatives. To the CDU establishment, the hippie-haired, sneaker-wearing Greens were "terrorists" and "forest hermits." CDU legislators pressed, unsuccessfully, to have them observed by Germany's domestic intelligence as an alleged threat to the democratic order. To many Greens, in turn, the conservatives under then Chancellor Helmut Kohl were nature-despoiling, women-oppressing, foreigner-hating capitalists—political barbarians, a virtual throwback to the Nazis.

The sudden and remarkable shift in sentiment is part cultural change, and part political expediency. Today's Greens have now come of age. The 1980s protest generation is now in its 40s and 50s, with families and mortgages. Educated and rich (Green voters have higher incomes than those of any other party), the now established Greens have also shed many of their more radical policies. Far-left members and voters bolted the party after then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, once a hard-core left street fighter, supported German military deployment in Kosovo and Afghanistan. While many of their instincts and sympathies are very much old left, they've built a reputation for sensible pragmatism once in power.

The CDU, in turn, has abandoned not a few of its more conservative positions. Under Merkel, the conservatives have not only moved far to embrace environmentalism, but they have also expanded child-care benefits and increased welfare spending, and launched new efforts to integrate immigrants. Just as unthinkable among conservatives during the Kohl era: the CDU governor of Hamburg is openly gay. Just as they've merged on some of their policies, it helps that Greens and conservatives share a similar middle-class, educated background, says Thomas Petersen, political analyst at the Allensbach Institute. Neither party's membership or core voters have much in common with the working-class, union-member-dominated SPD.

But the most pressing reason for the shift is necessity—and here it may have the most lasting effect on German politics. This alliance is part of the realignment of German politics following the growth of the radically left-wing, populist Linkspartei. Because the vote is now divided between five parties—the CDU, SPD, Greens, Linkspartei and the pro-business Free Democrats—it has become ever harder for one party to rule alone, or even with its one traditional small-party ally. What's more, with the implosion of the Social Democrats (the Greens' traditional allies) to only 25 percent in a mid-May poll, the Greens are abandoning what seems, for now, a rapidly sinking ship. Of course, there's no guarantee the Hamburg experiment will succeed either. Most Green voters would prefer to share power with the Linkspartei and SPD, rather than the conservatives. But at least for the moment, the Green leadership is resisting because it is reluctant to tie its fortunes to a struggling SPD—and it fears joining up with the rabble-rousing far left will return the party to the fringe-movement ghetto from which they've worked so hard to escape.

One question is whether the Hamburg alliance could be a harbinger of things to come even beyond Germany's borders. After all, environmentalism became mainstream in Germany long before the climate-change debate put it on the international agenda. And it was a conservative government—Helmut Kohl's—that set up the country's first Ministry for the Environment back in 1986. Could the rest of the world again follow Germany's example? Ferdinand Müller-Rommel, a professor at Lüneburg University who has studied Green movements for 25 years, says Green-conservative coalitions have emerged in a handful of other governments, including Ireland and France, and argues this melding is a natural process that is long overdue. "I've been telling the Greens since the 1980s that their issues—environmentalism, individualism, grass-roots decision-making—are at heart conservative issues," he says.

In Germany, coalitions like the one in Hamburg have fomented much talk of a new post-ideological age. Petersen says the Green-conservative rapprochement may signal the end of the confrontational post-1968 culture wars that have so sharply polarized the political debate. "People are sick of clinging to political positions that might have been right 30 years ago but have been overcome by reality today," von Beust said of his new coalition in a mid-May interview with Die Zeit. If this kind of attitude empowers the pragmatists and problem solvers in the political parties, then Hamburg's newfangled alliance will prove to be truly radical.