By Michael McCabe
Undergraduate Economics & International Relations Student
The German state of Baden-Württemberg is an economic powerhouse. Its unemployment rate is more than 2 points below the national average. Its exports contribute disproportionately to Germany’s national trade surplus, which is the second largest in the world. It is home to the headquarters and primary production facilities of both Daimler and Porsche, two of Germany’s most valued manufacturers in the country’s most prized export sector, as well as the headquarters of the software firm SAP and the engineering and electronics firm Bosch.
But surprisingly, the Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg isn’t a member of one of the two major parties, Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU or the centre-left SPD. Winfried Kretschmann, a man whose name couldn’t be more German if one tried, happens to be a member of Germany’s Green Party and the party’s first ever head of government of any German state. Prior to Kretschmann’s accession to the office in 2011, every Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg, except the first, had been a member of the CDU, an unbroken streak of nearly 58 years that reflects the state’s pragmatic, business-oriented political nature. The reason, however, why it is so interesting is that a member of the Green Party leads Baden-Württemberg is because of the Green Party’s origins.
On the Green Party’s website under the tab Wer wir sind (who we are), one learns that the party grew out of protest movements against nuclear power, the destruction of the environment and the depletion of natural resources, as one would expect from a Green Party. It also emphasizes justice for minorities as well as the reduction of economic inequality. Furthermore, it cites the normalization of having a biomarkt (organic supermarket) in every town as one of its accomplishments. The Green Party is clearly one based on liberal, egalitarian, progressive, and occasionally radical ideals.
So how can a party that claims to have brought sustainable farming into the national conversation lead a state whose most prized exports includes the 218 mph Porsche 918 Spyder? Granted, this particular Porsche is a hybrid, as is all the rage these days, but still, how? It has a lot to do with the particular brand of Green politics that Kretschmann represents in conjunction with a Japanese national disaster.
Back in 2011, on the 11th of March, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster commenced. It just so happened that the state election in Baden-Württemberg was to take place a little over two weeks later on the 27th. On the 14th, Chancellor Merkel decided to take a total of seven nuclear power plants throughout Germany, including one in Baden-Württemberg, offline immediately. While 64 percent of Germans at the time disapproved of nuclear power, at least partially thanks to the Greens putting a focus on the issue, 70 percent viewed the Chancellor’s action as a cynical attempt at increasing the CDU’s national poll numbers.
Following her decision, a member of her own cabinet as well as a former CDU chancellor voiced their own disapproval of the decision, publicly as well as privately. While “nuclear panic” in conjunction with the Chancellor’s hasty decisions certainly contributed to the shift in the Greens’ momentum in the state election, the increasing urbanization of Baden-Württemberg’s populace didn’t hurt. However that wasn’t everything. Kretschmann belongs to the Central Committee of German Catholics and a shooting club: not exactly the conventional background you’d expect for a leader of a Green Party. This is a man who is quoted as saying before the election that “You can be in the black with green ideas”, who epitomizes the German political cliché of the frugal Swabian housewife that originated in Baden-Württemberg, and who has taken to heart all of these ideas like never before since he and his party won that election.
Kretschmann is and was exactly the kind of Green that a place like Baden-Württemberg can tolerate.
Since the 2011 election, in which the Greens won power in Baden-Württemberg through a coalition with the mainstream centre-left Social Democrats while the CDU remained the largest party in the state, much has changed in German politics. In this time, the CDU under Merkel has moved to the left on environmental issues as the federal government moves forward with its Engergiewende, a policy aiming for 80 percent renewably generated electricity by 2050, largely through generous green energy subsidies, but which also includes the phase-out of nuclear power by 2022 (covered ably by Kyra Ward last month). There are some blind spots in that, in order to phase-out nuclear power, the lost generating capacity is replaced by dirtier coal plants and that electricity generation doesn’t represent the whole of Germany’s emissions. But, one can see in the program of the centre-right governing party the fingerprints of Green politics.
Meanwhile, in Baden-Württemberg, in the lead-up to this year’s state election, the Greens released an advertisement that ended with Kretschmann himself stepping into a Mercedes S-Class, presumably built in the Sindelfingen factory just outside of the state capital of Stuttgart. In Baden-Württemberg, Green Party politics are no longer decidedly left-wing, but reside quite squarely in the centre political ground. On the national stage Kretschmann has been willing to buck the national Green Party on such issues as radioactive waste and even the tightening of asylum rules in response to the ongoing migration crisis, which puts him more in line with Merkel than with his own party. Meanwhile, at the state level, the CDU has attempted to buck Merkel on her refugee policies by calling for “border controls and daily refugee quotas,” in contrast to the Chancellor’s more lenient stance on the issues. Between these two state parties, in the lead-up to the election, there was a bit of a role reversal as to which was the more pragmatic party and which the more radical one.
On the one hand, there’s a state Green Party that is traditionally Green enough to appeal to liberal urbanites but also centrist and even conservative enough to appeal to the CDU’s base. On the other, there’s a state CDU that viewed running as far away from Merkel on refugees as possible towards the hard-right no-man’s land of modern German politics as politically prudent, a perspective somewhat vindicated given the rise of the far-right anti-immigration AfD party in various other state elections throughout Germany.
This unusual dichotomy allowed the Greens under Kretschmann to seize the centre ground as their own and achieve pole position in the state election ahead of the CDU. In fact, if there had been a state-wide direct election, Kretschmann would have earned 64 percent percent of the vote and even 45 percent of CDU voters in competition with other party leaders. In the aftermath of the election, due to the make-up of the state parliament, the two parties formed a governing coalition with each other, completing the shift of the state Green Party from an insignificant political force to a dominating one as well as the shift of the state CDU from the natural governing party to the junior member of a coalition.
In the midst of the toxicity of refugee politics in Germany and the consequent rise of right-wing populism embodied in the AfD, Winfried Kretschmann and the Baden-Württemberg Green Party represent a new Green politics that is environmentally-conscious yet fiscally moderate, liberal yet reasonable. This is a new Green politics with widespread appeal that in at least one instance has successfully beaten back the creeping of anti-immigration and isolationist sentiments into mainstream German politics, something that should and must happen on a wider scale, while also advocating for thoroughly Green principles that it has not forgotten. This is a practical model for the future of Green parties everywhere that should guide the federal Green Party in the Bundestag election slated for a year from now if it hopes to become a viable political force on the federal level in the coming years.
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