The Greens Win the Day
Berlin Bulletin No. 23
The two German state elections Sunday were of key importance – but only one party found the proper keyhole. That was the Greens. Much of that party’s remarkable gains were based on tragedy – the horror of Fukushima in Japan and fears that one of the four atomic reactors in Baden-Wurttemberg, the youngest 22 years old, the oldest 35 years old, might cause a similar disaster.
Huge demonstrations the day before the election, 90,000 in Berlin, over 400,000 in four major German cities, demanded an end to atomic reactors, and that is how the voters marked their ballots, giving the Greens 24.4 % in Baden-Wurttemberg, double that in the last elections, and a very healthy 15.6 % in Rhineland-Palatinate, an almost equally unusual gain of 11 percent.
In the latter they will now share power with the weakened Social Democrats, who hitherto ruled alone in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, but now lost almost ten percent. The aging leader there, Kurt Beck, 62, stout, with his standard, well-clipped white beard and usually good contact with voters, the state boss since 1994, did not do well this time against the pretty, blonde former Wine Queen of the Christian Democrats, but will stay on top all the same thanks to the gains of the Greens.
In more important Baden-Wurttemberg, with both Mercedes and Porsche centered in its capital of Stuttgart and a hard-core conservative bastion of the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats for 58 years, the Greens edged just ahead of their future partners, the Social Democrats, truly a sensation, and should provide the new Minister President in Stuttgart, the first Green to hold such an exalted office in German history. The jubilation in Green headquarters was overpowering.
Opposing atomic energy has been their main slogan since they were founded over thirty years ago, they have been most vocal on the issue for years, but especially since Fukushima, and although both the Social Democrats and the Left joined in they were viewed by large numbers of voters as the most vigorous and consistent campaigners on this issue, and this became a crucial factor as people watched the daily, frightful and frightening pictures from the Far East.
The zigzags of the Merkel government, supporting an extension of the reactors’ lives last autumn, obviously in cahoots with the handful of major companies in the field but then, after the Japanese catastrophe, declaring a 3 month moratorium on further development while closing seven of the oldest reactors, at least temporarily, were simply not trusted. A small scandal a week earlier did not help. A cabinet minister (one of the Free Democrats) told big business representatives at a private meeting that the moratorium was really only because of the coming elections and not to be taken too seriously. This all too honest confession was leaked to the press, the minister became a laughing stock in the Bundestag as he tried to disavow his recorded words, and both government parties lost a large passel of votes. In fact the Free Democrats, always close to big business, failed to win the required 5 % in Rhineland-Palatinate and so disappeared altogether from the state legislature there. They barely managed to keep a few seats in Baden-W, with 5.2 %, less than half their last vote. This loss in both elections might well spell the end of Guido Westerwelle, not as Foreign Minister perhaps but as head of his party. And the loss of this important, hitherto reliable state will be a major blow to the prestige of the parent party and government of Angela Merkel.
But sadly enough, on the periphery of all this excitement, the Left was also forced to lick its wounds. Its losses since the last elections were minimal, but they were losses, not gains, and in both states it missed the needed and so yearned for 5 % level even more clearly than the polls had indicated, getting only 2.7 % in Baden-Wuerttemberg and 3.2 % in Rhineland-Palatinate. Its once triumphant entry into the West German political scene had been very unsuccessful this Sunday.
Several suggested reasons will certainly be the subject of hot debate in coming months. In Rhineland-Palatinate there had been constant quarreling within factions of the party. This was largely settled by January, it would seem, but that was not soon enough. Of course the media played up all internal differences. A second possible reason: the highly-publicized sentence or two by co-president Gesine Loetzsch in praise of communism as a future, if distant goal, a goal which she also called democratic socialism. This latter term was ignored, while the C-word (K-word in German) was trumpeted in all the media to frighten people. It undoubtedly had some effect. Another reason: the economic demands of the Left have been plagiarized by both the Social Democrats and the Greens, and they get media attention, while the efforts of the Left, including those on the atomic question, remain unknown to most voters. But probably most important was that the elections had been played up as a battle between Christian Democrats and Free Democrats on one side and Greens and Social Democrats on the other. In the face of this polarization even voters favorable to the Left decided to support the Greens, who had a real chance of gaining great strength – as they indeed did in the end. The Left, it would seem, will have to work out more aggressive, street-based and imaginative forms of political action if it is to beat out long-term prejudices and media hostility. Sometimes it has worked.
In general, a large proportion of voters signaled that they were sick and distrustful of the old Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Social Democrats as well, and they placed their trust in the modernist, more attractive Greens. They had frequently forgotten that whenever the Greens have gained power and influence they have all too often neglected many or most of their loudly proclaimed principles. They now represent, more than ever, a well-educated, fairly prosperous sector with few ties to people on the lower rungs of economic ladders. It remains to be seen whether this will remain so. In Germany the color green stands not for envy but for hope. May we hope that the voters are not disappointed.
CDU 39.0 (- 5.2); SPD 23.1 (- 2.1); Greens 24.2 (+ 12.5); FDP 5.3 (-
5.4); Left 2.8 (- 0.4)
CDU 35.2 (+ 2.6); SPD 35.7 (- 9.8); Greens 15.4 (+ 11.0),; FDP 4.2 (-
4.1); Left 3.0 (- 0.6)
March 27 2011