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WALL STREET JOURNAL
Germany’s Greens: from Hippies to Hip
BERLIN—Elections in Germany’s capital city this weekend will gauge the power of the country’s rising Green party—a former movement of hippies and radicals that has gone mainstream, and is fast becoming the kingmaker of German politics.
The Greens are on course to win roughly 20% of votes in Sunday’s election of a new Berlin state legislature, a result that could see them rule Germany’s biggest city in coalition with the incumbent Social Democrats.
Greens and Social Democrats would herald such an outcome as a signpost for national elections in 2013, when the center-left parties hope to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative-led government. Although the SPD alone is too weak to beat Ms. Merkel, the rise of the Greens poses a serious challenge for the chancellor—so serious, in fact, that many political analysts say Ms. Merkel might try to woo the Greens as a potential partner herself.
Earlier this year, opinion polls even suggested the Greens could become the biggest party in Berlin, pushing the Social Democrats into second place. Berlin’s popular mayor, Klaus Wowereit, an openly gay Social Democrat who champions the city’s bohemian, creative image, has since hauled his party back into the lead. But he still faces a stiff challenge from Green candidate Renate Künast, a tough former prison social worker.
The city-state of Berlin is one of 16 states that make up the German Federal Republic. After a long spell of conservative dominance, the city has swung left in the past decade under Mr. Wowereit and his junior partners, the ex-Communist Left Party.
Now, however, it is the Greens who have best caught the mood of Germany’s trendy and liberal capital. That is partly because the environmentalists themselves have grown up—its former sandal-wearing activists now tout sharp suits and hold increasingly moderate views on economics.
But it is also because Germany’s educated, urban middle class is moving steadily toward the Greens’ beliefs: Environmentalism, peace, and stronger rights for consumers, women and minorities.
«People called us crazy,» said Claudia Roth, one of the Greens’ two national leaders and a party activist since the 1980s. «People branded us a danger to jobs. We were called anarchists, stone-throwers, criminals,» she said. But many of the Greens’ once-radical demands—including a shutdown of nuclear power, which the movement has always branded as dirty and dangerous—have become government policy.
The Greens grew out of Germany’s loose antinuclear and peace movements of the 1970s. Many activists had roots in 1960s student protests and counterculture. They remained iconoclasts when they began winning seats in parliaments in the 1980s. When former student radical and street fighter Joschka Fischer became environment minister of the state of Hesse in 1985, he famously took his oath of office wearing white sneakers and a threadbare tweed jacket.
Mr. Fischer was wearing sharper suits by the time he became Germany’s foreign minister in 1998, as junior coalition partner to Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
The Greens have found themselves in opposition since Ms. Merkel became chancellor in 2005. But even Ms. Merkel’s policies show the Greens’ influence on society: In March, after Japan’s nuclear-reactor disaster, she bowed to Germans’ mistrust of atomic energy and agreed to shut down all Germany’s reactors by 2022.
The once pro-nuclear chancellor’s reversal failed to prevent the Greens from winning power in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, for decades a conservative bastion. Local Green leader Winfried Kretschmann became the party’s first-ever premier of a German state.
Analysts agree that Germans are moving toward convictions that the Greens have long held. Younger voters no longer feel loyal, as their parents did, to Germany’s two established parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats.
But the Greens face a challenge in appealing to their new, moderate voters as well as their traditional base, says Manfred Güllner, head of Berlin opinion-polling institute Forsa. «It’s a shift from the traditionally loud and ideological radicals to appealing to a broader class of urban professionals, who are also much more pragmatic,» Mr. Güllner said.
Mr. Kretschmann quickly irked some of his most powerful constituents—luxury car makers Porsche AG and Daimler AG—by saying that the auto industry should retool their strategy toward «mobility concepts» that include trains and bicycles. «Fewer cars are of course better than more,» he said in April.
In August, Mr. Kretschmann infuriated supporters who have campaigned for more than a year against the redevelopment of Stuttgart’s main train station, a project that involves digging up a swath of the city center.
Mr. Kretschmann campaigned against the unpopular project, but in office said he «can’t undo» contracts that have already been signed.
In Berlin’s election race, Ms. Künast has similarly struggled to keep her broad-based support united. While Germans like environmentalism in theory, they remain a car-loving nation, and many voters balked at Ms. Künast’s proposals for speed limits of only 30 kilometers per hour—just under 20 mph—throughout the city.
The Greens «now have the problem that the major parties always had, of keeping a large number of voters under one tent,» Mr. Güllner said.