Success of Greens in Europe Counters Far-Right Narrative

A forest in Bavaria, Germany. (William Dotinga/CNS)

(CN) — For more than a year, many in Europe have despaired as far-right parties in Italy, Germany and elsewhere have picked up votes and power. But another, albeit smaller, wave is being felt too: a comeback in Northern Europe by the Greens, adherents of an ecological left-wing political movement born out of the radical student protest movements of the 1960s.

In recent elections in Germany’s politically important state of Bavaria and in Belgium and Luxembourg, Green parties saw a surge of votes.

The Greens — known as Die Grünen in Germany — are expected to repeat this success in state elections in Germany’s Hessen region on Sunday. Nationally in Germany, the Greens are polling at about 20 percent, making them the second most popular party after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

In mid-October, the Greens doubled their popularity in Bavaria — at the expense, especially, of the imploding Social Democrats, who are at risk of losing their status as Germany’s main left-wing party to the Greens, according to political analysts.

On the same Sunday, which some dubbed “Green Sunday,” the Greens won 50 percent more votes in legislative elections in Luxembourg, confirming themselves as an important party, though they remain much smaller than the center-right Christian Social People’s Party. The Greens are in a coalition government with a liberal and a social-democratic party.

On the same day, Green candidates were big winners in local elections in Belgium, including municipal elections in Brussels, the capital.

“Political ecology has won; we cannot do politics as before,” said Zakia Kattabi, a leader of Belgium’s Ecolo, the green party, after the victory, according to Le Monde newspaper.

The Greens like to see themselves as a party that knows what it stands for: They’re pro-environment, pro-Europe, pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, and humanitarian. This makes the party attractive at a time when voters are dissatisfied with the traditional left-right class politics and are looking through a lens defined by identity politics and values, political analysts say.

“The Greens have a more reliable and clearer profile than other parties,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, the co-chair of the European Greens in the European Parliament, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.

He said the party was benefiting from a new generation of young party members who are pragmatic and optimistic: delivering “radical ideas with a smile on top of that.”

Bütikofer, like others who founded the Greens, got his start in politics with the radical left-wing student movement that flourished after 1968. That movement was Marxist, anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist. The first green parties arose in the 1980s as fears over nuclear annihilation raged.

Today, though, the Greens, in Germany, at least, are of a paler shade of green. They’re not so radical.

“The Greens have become part of the mainstream, in a sense,” said Wolfgang Rüdig, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His work has examined the Greens.

This is due, in large measure, to their success. They have wielded power in coalitions both at the federal and state level in Germany, most notably as the smaller coalition partner with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats between 1998 and 2005.

During this period in power, the Greens abandoned their stance on nonviolence and supported Germany’s involvement in the Kosovo conflict and the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan.

Some critics also charge the German party of backsliding on core environmental principles, such as a slower shuttering of coal-powered energy plants and easing demands to force Germany to be run completely by renewable energy.

Then there are Green leaders such as Winfried Kretschmann, the premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg in southwestern Germany, home to automaker Mercedes. He advocates for “clean diesel” while Greens generally favor eliminating diesel cars entirely.

In another break with Green orthodoxy, Boris Palmer, the Green mayor of Tübingen, a city in Baden-Wuerttemberg, wrote a book last year in support of more controls on asylum-seekers coming to Germany.

With such ideas, Palmer has been accused of sounding more like the archenemy of the Greens: The far-right Alternative for Germany, which has upended German politics with its anti-immigrant nationalistic rhetoric. The Greens like to distinguish themselves from other German parties for their openness toward taking in more asylum-seekers.

Still, the success of the Greens is seen by many as a relief that counterbalances the rise of politicians on the far right coalescing around ever tougher stances on refugees and immigrants.

Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, expressed this sentiment.

“I note, optimistically, the excellent score of Gruenen [Greens] on the basis of a pro-migrant and anti-racist program,” he tweeted after the Bavarian elections.

Enthusiastically, European media too have embraced the electoral success of the Greens.

“German Greens emerge into the limelight,” ran a recent headline of an article in the Times of London, a conservative newspaper.

The Times article said the Greens are no longer “the business-hating bogeymen of the hippy fringe” and now are “on nodding terms with capitalism.”

Bütikofer said European politics can be broken down into three camps.

One camp is made up of the big centrist ruling parties drawing support from the left, center and right. “They are pro-Europe but responsible for failing policies,” he said.

Then there are politicians with anti-European, authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies. In a third camp he sees the Greens: pro-European but with new ideas.

“We are both an alternative to the business-as-usual parties and the authoritarian parties,” Bütikofer said. “I would like to say the center is moving in our direction. That hope is very much alive and kicking.”

Can the Greens become a new big-tent party for the left, one of Germany’s so-called Volksparteien?

“I find it hard to believe this is a temporary trend,” Rüdig said in a telephone interview. He said the weakening of Germany’s main parties favors the rise of the Greens as a big party.

Maybe so. But the chances of success outside Germany and its neighbors in Northern Europe — the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland — don’t look so good.

“It’s patchy,” Rüdig said of the success of Greens around Europe. “In the overall picture, it is not uniform.”

Green parties are very weak in Southern Europe. In the European Parliament, the Greens boast of five members from Spain, one from Italy and none in Portugal and Greece. It’s even bleaker in Eastern Europe. In the EU countries that were once part of the communist bloc, there are seven Greens in the European Parliament.

In France, too, the Greens are struggling for relevancy. Six of France’s 74 EU parliamentary members are part of the Greens’ alliance.

Europe Écologie, France’s green party, is polling at about 7.5 percent in the European Parliament elections coming next May.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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