The Big Green Tent

May 2, 2011
Lothar Probst
Last fall, the German Greens began to skyrocket in polls taken after the protests against the new train station in the city of Stuttgart. As the party approached the 20 percent threshold for the first time, some of the media began to talk about the Greens as a new Volkspartei, a new big-tent party. The weekly magazine Der Spiegel even made the Greens' success its cover story (“Die neue deutsche Volkspartei” – DER SPIEGEL 46/2010). At the beginning of 2011, the media hype died down a bit when the Greens returned to their "normal" level in polls and only received a moderate share of the vote in the elections for the state parliament in Hamburg, but the discussion once again dominates the media after the party's success in the elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate.

The day after the elections, the leading story in Weser Kurier of Bremen was "Nuclear power voted out, new big Green tent voted in" ("Atomkraft abgewählt – neue Volkspartei geboren" (Weser Kurier, 28 March 2011, p. 1), and the FAZ also called the Greens a "new big-tent party" a few days later in an op-ed (FAZ, 30 March 2011, p. 1). The author of the FAZ op-ed, Stephan Löwenstein, started off his commentary as follows: "If you are looking for a new word to reliably scare the Greens with, try ‘big-tent party’." Indeed, the term seems to be a hot potato for the Greens, who are afraid they will burn themselves if they try to hold it. Party leaders, at least, continue to reject the label forced upon them by the media.

Greens managed to win over new voters

Nevertheless, the Greens – whether they like it or not – have to come to terms with their entrance in new dimensions after the election results in Baden-Württemberg, and there is no way around reassessing their positions against this new backdrop. One salient outcome is that the Greens are the most popular party in southwestern Germany among the unemployed, with 23 percent of the vote in that group. Furthermore, 19 percent of workers voted for the Greens – an increase of eleven percent. With 31 percent of freelancers, they are some 20 percentage points ahead of the SPD (eleven percent) and the FDP (ten percent). The Greens got 37 percent of the vote from women between the ages of 35 and 44, and overall far more women voted for the Greens than men did. We truly entered a new era when the Greens won over not only a large number of voters from the SPD (140,000), but also roughly the same number from the CDU and FDP (148,000 collectively).

Election researchers have often argued that the Greens mainly win votes at the cost of voters from nearby political camps, but that argument does not seem to hold at the moment. An additional 266,000 first-time voters and a number of additional victories in county elections round off the positive picture for the Greens (all figures based on an analysis by infratest dimap of the state elections in Baden-Württemberg). Political party researcher Franz Walter has claimed that the Greens have "high-level public officials" to thank for their electoral success, but this explanation is clearly off the mark. In the end, the Greens have managed to get voters from sectors of the population that seemed unreachable for them just a few years ago in a state – Baden-Württemberg – that has traditionally been conservative.

The Greens have shown that they can mobilize their voters, unlike other parties

Election analyses showed that the Greens performed exceptionally well at the polls in southwestern Germany because the nuclear disaster in Japan was the dominant issue at the time, and the Greens benefited the most as the "anti-nuclear" party. But their success is not based only on this single event that once again tragically demonstrated the dangers of this high-risk technology across space and time. Explanations that emphasize temporary events overlook the long-term stable trend in election results for the Greens, who have been getting around 20 percent of the vote for some time now in certain regions and sectors of the population. EU elections do not draw much public attention, and voter turnout is often low, but the success that the Greens have been having in these elections presaged the recent success within Germany. In EU elections in particular, the Greens are able to mobilize their well educated voters who are interested in European policy more than all other parties have been able to do, reaching 20 to 30 percent of the vote in university towns and large cities.

Indeed, the Greens do best in urban, developed regions with a highly heterogeneous population, with universities and a wide range of educational facilities, with cultural centers, and with a large "creative" service sector. Here, they compete eye-to-eye with the SPD and CDU in various municipal districts – and not only in EU elections. In 2007, the Greens received 20 percent of the vote in Bremen's municipal elections even in traditionally conservative, affluent neighborhoods. In university towns like Freiburg, Tübingen, and Konstanz, the mayor has been a member of the Green Party for years, and in Stuttgart, MP Cem Özdemir nearly won a relative majority when he got 29.9 percent – long before the new train station became a public bone of contention and Fukushima became synonymous with the uncontrollable risks of nuclear power.

But even in the small and midsize towns of Germany's larger states, the Greens have increasingly been receiving between 10 and 20 percent of the vote. Election results remain above average among the educated, the affluent, and the young. In the federal elections of 2009, the Greens received 18 and 16 percent of the vote from university graduates and graduates of prep schools, respectively. The Greens receive more votes than the CDU or the SPD from professionally successful 45 to 59-year-olds. Finally, they received around 14 percent of the vote on average from those between the ages of 18 and 45 in the last federal elections.

A few years ago, there were forecasts of the "Greens turning gray" as the party failed to attract young people, but these forecasts have turned out to be off the mark.  On the contrary, German voters have not yet really started turning gray, and the Greens have generally not performed as well among voters above the age of 60, who will increasingly make up a bigger piece of the voting pie and are also expected to have relatively high voter turnout. If anything, "gray" voters have therefore cost the Greens votes. For instance, only 14 percent of voters over the age of 60 voted for the Greens in Baden-Württemberg, far below the average. But as more and more Green voters enter the group above 60, the party can expect to gradually perform better here as well. Over the past 30 years, the Greens have managed to create a stable basis in various sectors of the population and expand their electoral base.

Voters have high expectations of the Greens

In the end, the question of whether the election results in Baden-Württemberg mean that the Greens can now be considered a new "big-tent party" is irrelevant. At best, the Greens could be considered a "big-tent party of the modern center," mainly consisting of public officials, white-collar workers, and, increasingly, freelancers from "creative" sectors and human services. What's important is not, however, the label, but rather how the Greens deal with their growing importance.

The expectations of voters and the public towards the Greens have changed since March 27, 2011. Clearly, the party no longer serves an ecological niche. In their new role as a party of the center, the Greens will automatically have to assume more responsibility if they do not want to disappoint their new voters. To this end, they will not only have to find a new way of addressing voters that clearly differs from the old, but also show that they are able to work with other parties as leaders in coalitions. They have a long road ahead of them; after all, voters in Baden-Württemberg mainly hold the Greens to be competent in energy and transport policy, while 59 percent believe that the party does not focus enough on the economy and jobs. The success of the "experiment" of a coalition with the SPD in Baden-Württemberg with the Greens at the helm partly depends on whether these doubts can be dispelled. In light of this duty, who would want to switch places with Winfried Kretschmann and the Greens in Baden-Württemberg?

This article was first published in German.

Lothar Probst

Lothar Probst is a professor of politics and cultural history and head of the Institute of Intercultural and International Studies at the University of Bremen. He is a member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Green Academy.

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