Current polls consistently put it at more than 20 percent of the national vote, which in Germany’s increasingly fragmented parliament could be enough to lead a coalition. In many state and local elections in recent years, the Greens received the best results in their history. After 16 years under Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU alliance, Germany seems ready for a change — and many see the Greens as the preferred vehicle for this change.
If we want to understand the current success of the German Greens, we need to move beyond some of the narratives that exist around Europe’s Green parties. Commentators often portray them as one-issue parties, and any success they have is largely interpreted as a direct result of climate change rising on the political agenda.
Green parties, however, are campaigning on more than environmental protection and climate change. In the changing political space in Western Europe — which now strongly revolves around questions such as immigration, gender equality, LGBT rights and international integration — Green parties represent a broad progressive agenda. Combining economically left-wing and culturally progressive positions, the German Greens can be considered the opposite of the radical right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
For people who care about progressive policies on questions from immigration to gender equality, the German Greens provide a much clearer offer than, for example, the social democratic SPD. When she became a party leader in 2018, Baerbock emphasized that her party needed to broaden its appeal and not be reduced to a party of environmental issues. Her speeches regularly focus on deepening European integration, on improving schools and education and on reducing economic inequality.
Moreover, Green parties are regularly portrayed as the parties of the urban, highly educated elite. But, while higher levels of education remain associated with higher support for Green parties, Green parties have seen their support rise throughout many groups in society. They have increased their vote share not only in Europe’s cosmopolitan hubs such as Berlin or Amsterdam, but also in conservative regions such as Switzerland’s Ticino or Bavaria. In recent regional and local elections, the Greens received high levels of support in many rural areas as well as in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s former industrial coal and steel heartland, suggesting shifts in their appeal. More specific analyses based on survey data show that, among voters with lower levels of education, about 30 percent could imagine voting for the Greens. In addition, many supporters of the CDU name the Greens as their second choice, which is particularly relevant given the low levels of popularity of Armin Laschet, the freshly nominated chancellor candidate from the CDU/CSU.
All of these factors mean that the Greens are in a very strong position to join or even lead the next German government — and that is only a short-term perspective. Socio-structural change suggests that the Greens could even establish themselves as the main force on the German left.
If we look at the voting behavior of younger voters, the Greens have become the dominant party — and this does not even include the preferences of large shares of the Fridays for Future generation, who often have not yet reached the voting age of 18. Nominating a relatively young woman — Baerbock is 40 — for the most important political position in Germany might bolster their appeal.
In contrast, the electorate and membership of the social democratic party are increasingly old. Like other social democratic parties, the German SPD has spent years arguing internally over how it lost its traditional working-class electorate. Preoccupied by this debate, the party has paid less attention to the fact that it has lost its appeal to new social milieus and younger cohorts. These voters seem to have found a home with the Greens and might stay there for the foreseeable future.
The success of the German Greens represents a broader shift in some Western European countries, where culturally progressive and socially liberal parties, such as the Dutch D66 or Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche, have drawn large shares of voters from traditional social democratic parties. If these other parties also manage to attract voters from the mainstream right, this would boost progressive parties and alliances — and provide a model on how to mobilize new coalitions of voters.
Germany’s elections in September will be a test of whether parties such as the Greens can change the political landscape — and, whatever happens, there will be lessons for the world.