Twelve months ago Germany's Greens were at the peak of their power. With 13 percent support in polls--their highest ratings ever--they had become the party of choice for a broad, educated elite. Observers saw their handwriting all over the policies of the government they had formed with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrats in 1998: new mandates for renewable energy and recycling, an agreement to phase out nuclear power, a modern citizenship law that did away with ancient blood-based rules, even gay-partnership rights. Their leader, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, was easily the most popular politician in Germany.
Just a year later, the Greens are floundering. In May elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, voters kicked them out of the last of five state governments where they once shared power. Fischer is under investigation in a scandal involving human trafficking from Eastern Europe--critics say he approved a controversial 2000 directive abolishing background checks on foreign visitors, and refused to make changes despite having been informed of massive abuse. Support for both the party and its leader has taken a nose dive, and Schroeder's decision to call early elections for Sept. 18 has caught them at the worst possible moment. A weakened Social Democratic Party (SPD) could conceivably join up with the conservatives in a "grand coalition." But virtually no one can envision a scenario in which the Greens--who have no other allies than the hemorrhaging SPD--stay in government.
The party may thus be the most direct victim of Schroeder's political woes. The question is whether it's experiencing a temporary setback, or is in terminal decline. "The Zeitgeist has turned," says Thomas Petersen, an analyst at the Allensbach polling institute. With 12 percent unemployment--and seemingly endless economic stagnation--spreading anxiety deep into the middle class, the national debate has shifted from things like global warming to the hard issues of jobs, money and welfare. Last week Schroeder's SPD unveiled an "election manifesto" that promises a new "rich-people tax" to help pay for its social programs. The conservatives will follow with their own platform this week, expected to focus on labor-market deregulation and the cutting of payroll taxes. Classic Green issues like the environment, pacifism and feminism now seem like indulgences to many. "Green worries are luxury worries," says Petersen. "When there are no jobs, the ozone hole no longer matters."
Ouch. As if overnight, the Greens have turned from the darlings of the German establishment to emblems of what ails the country. goodbye eco-freaks, the Financial Times Deutschland headlined last week, predicting the advent of a long conservative era. With their neglect of hard-hitting economic issues, the Greens have turned themselves into "the feel-good party of the urban academic milieu," sneered even Berlin's Tageszeitung, a historically leftist paper. Critics see Fischer's visa scandal as the embodiment of what's wrong with the Greens: do-good policies--in this case, opening Germany's borders in the name of "multiculturalism"--paired with an arrogant disregard for the cost to the country. A similarly high-minded policy to subsidize wind power has drawn protests from citizens angry about thousands of giant wind turbines that now sully once pristine landscapes. Even Schroeder has lashed out at his erstwhile political allies, suggesting in a recent interview in the weekly Die Zeit that sharing power might have been a mistake.
To be fair, Schroeder's own party, not the Greens, bears greater responsibility for the chancellor's demise. His left wing has rebelled against even modest economic reforms--hence the SPD's new soak-the-rich platform. In fact, on the issue of urgently needed economic reforms, the Greens have been more pro-market than Schroeder, calling for an end to rust-belt industry subsidies and less red tape for entrepreneurs. Rightly or wrongly, the Greens even credit their environmental policies with creating jobs. "Look where the new jobs are in Germany," says Anna Luhrmann, a Green M.P. in Berlin, noting the 70,000 positions created in the renewable-energy sector. Wind- and solar-power companies have been among the fastest growing in the country, and a high-tech recycling industry has begun expanding abroad.
Yet a boom in wind and garbage may matter little in the face of a broad cultural shift. If Cologne University sociologist and Greens expert Markus Klein is right, Germany is in the grip of a "values rollback," away from the post-materialist values of the comfortable 1970s and '80s--including concern for the environment and minority rights--to a more conservative emphasis on achievement, responsibility, family, career and, to a small extent, even religion. Young Germans who grew up in the economically insecure 1990s, he says, worry about jobs and education, not the second-tier issues with which the Greens are identified. Already, says Klein, Green voters are concentrated in the 40-to-49 age bracket, while young voters are increasingly flocking to conservative and liberal-democratic parties. "The Greens are a one-generation project," says Klein. "Their core voters will just die out."
That probably underestimates the Greens' resilience, and the persistence of the issues they address. As last week's G8 meeting in Scotland showed, "soft" issues such as climate change and developing-world aid are hardly ephemeral. "If even George W. Bush talks about the need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, then I'm not going to worry about the future of the Greens," says Luhrmann. And as intransigent as their reputation might be, the Greens have shown a remarkable capacity for change. Once in office, peacenik Fischer passionately supported sending German troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan. And the once anarchist Greens have had no qualms about abolishing an array of privacy rights--like confidentiality in banking--only loosely connected with the fight against terror. An "ecolibertarian" wing of the Greens even wants to ally with Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats.
Such hard-nosed realism is not likely to save the party come September: the latest polls show the Greens garnering only 7 percent of the vote. But four years in opposition may give them enough time to figure out how to adapt to Germany's new reality.