Germany’s Green Party shows how to pick a candidate for chancellor

Making the ruling conservatives look ridiculous


A GREATER STUDY in contrasts would be hard to imagine. At 11am sharp on the morning of April 19th, exactly as promised, Germany’s Green Party anointed Annalena Baerbock as its candidate for the country’s chancellorship, which will be vacated when Angela Merkel steps down after a general election in September. Ms Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, got the nod with the approval of Robert Habeck, the co-leader with whom she has helped turn the Greens from electoral also-runs to potential leaders of government. The process was smoothly organised and the result clearly communicated. The decision was in fact made before Easter, said Ms Baerbock; the party had successfully kept it under wraps since then.

At the same time Germany’s ruling conservatives—Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU)—were locked in an increasingly bitter row over who should lead them into the election battle: Armin Laschet, the CDU leader and premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most-populous state; or Markus Söder, the popular head of the CSU and of Bavaria, the second-biggest state. The pair have been negotiating, on and off, for nearly a week, but neither man has yet stood down. No formal process exists to grind out a result. Clandestine briefings and leaks have poisoned the atmosphere.

Ms Baerbock surely enjoyed the words of faux-concern she offered the CDU/CSU in her acceptance speech. But her main focus was on shaping the message the Greens will offer in the campaign to come. Her candidacy involves two bets. First, that 16 years of Merkelism, and over a year of a pandemic that has left Germany’s government looking flat-footed, has given a large portion of the country an appetite for change. Second, that Ms Baerbock, who combines a strong command of policy detail with a confident communications style wrapped up in a tone of reassuring centrism, is its most credible advocate. She vowed to “lead our diverse, strong, rich country towards a positive future”, adding that “changes would have to be made”. The party is brimming with ideas, from cranking up the ambitions of Germany’s climate-change policy to loosening its strict fiscal rules in order to fund more public investment. During the campaign this optimistic message will be bolstered by the optics of a youngish woman campaigning against a gaggle of older men, all of them familiar faces.

The Greens’ transition from protest party to serious electoral contenders is sometimes presented as a sort of Bildungsroman, with yesterday’s tree-huggers moulded by experience into today’s serious party of government. The truth is more complicated. Ms Baerbock and Mr Habeck enjoy more support among party cadres than any of their predecessors; in 2019 Ms Baerbock was re-elected co-leader with a Pyongyang-esque 97%. But the party has not fully overcome its old divisions, especially on security matters like NATO or the role of the German armed forces. The party’s increasingly hawkish line on authoritarian states like Russia and China, sharpened among others by Ms Baerbock, a foreign-policy specialist, co-exists with a lingering strain of pacifism in the base. Such tensions may be tested during the inevitable compromises of coalition-formation that will follow the election.

Nor is the party fresh to the idea of government. The Greens served as junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats (SPD) in 1998-2005, pushing for Germany to sign up to the intervention in Kosovo. Today they are part of coalitions in all but five of Germany’s 16 states, working variously with each of Germany’s main parties bar the hard-right Alternative for Germany. Thus has the party acquired a deep bench of country-wide officials with governing experience; a mode of disciplining its sometimes fractious wings; and a strong taste for the power of office rather than the impotence of opposition.

The Greens’ political promiscuity could extend to the federal level. Cemented in second place in opinion polls, they look certain to enter government after September’s election. For now, the polling suggests that a CDU/CSU-led “black-green” coalition remains the likeliest election outcome. But that could easily shift, and if the parliamentary arithmetic allows it Ms Baerbock could instead seek to lead a coalition with the SPD and a smaller outfit: either the liberal Free Democrats or the ex-communist Die Linke.

The Greens have faltered in election campaigns before. And what amounts to the end of the Habeck/Baerbock dual-leadership model will now challenge the party’s “formula of success”, argues Arne Jungjohann, a Stuttgart-based political scientist. But the ongoing CDU/CSU psychodrama, the effect of Mrs Merkel’s withdrawal from politics and the uncertain trajectory of the covid-19 pandemic make the election outcome unusually uncertain. A Green German chancellor is no longer an outlandish bet.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited since publication

William Murphy

William Murphy

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