Long popular in western cities, Germany’s Greens are bumping up against a wall with voters in the ex-communist east that could cost them the chance to snatch Chancellor Angela Merkel’s crown when she retires this year.
The now 40-year-old centre-left ecologist party will gather from Friday for a congress to plot the course toward September’s general election after a bruising performance last Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt state.
The poor vote showing cemented an image of lost momentum for the party, which for the first time in its history is staking a claim to the chancellery.
“The Greens are still both: potentially the strongest political force in the country and a small niche party, depending on the place, time and situation,” news weekly Der Spiegel said.
Despite ambitions for a double-digit result, the Greens notched up just six percent in the country’s poorest state — less than a point higher than their 2016 score.
“It wasn’t what we had hoped,” admitted a dejected Annalena Baerbock, also 40, the Greens’ chancellor candidate.
“Some of our messaging on climate protection failed to cut through to the voters,” she said, despite devastating droughts in the rural region in recent summers.
“In the east, which is still marked by the shock of reunification, potentially costly ecological measures are not a big draw for voters,” political scientist Hajo Funke told AFP.
The election handed Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) a resounding win with 37 percent of the vote, pushing the far-right AfD into a distant second place with 21 percent.
The strong outcome put wind in the sails of CDU leader Armin Laschet, Baerbock’s main opponent to run Europe’s top economy after 16 years of Merkel at the helm.
– Two-horse race –
The Greens, out of federal government since 2005, had been riding high at the national level, with voters telling pollsters the climate crisis is their top concern, albeit by a much larger margin in the west.
A survey last month also showed Germans hungry for change, with more than 60 percent hoping for a new government after the election.
Senior Greens say they are happy the campaign is shaping up as a two-horse race, and that excitement about the youthful Baerbock, a mother of two small children, has endured among their energised base.
But they acknowledge Baerbock, who is from the west but represents an eastern constituency outside Berlin in parliament, will have to make the Greens more than an one-issue party if they hope to win outright.
Greens co-leader Robert Habeck said the weekend election disappointment served as a wake-up call that they would need to “look beyond climate protection”.
He cited addressing the growing cleft between rural poverty and urban wealth, particularly in creating opportunities for young jobseekers, and expanding public transport infrastructure as sure vote winners.
He acknowledged that the “enormous political effort” required to bring down carbon dioxide emissions would have to be accompanied by “social measures” to cushion the blow to those whose jobs would be shed in the energy transition.
The party is also planning a targeted campaign for voters over the age of 60 in both east and west, arguing that “climate protection is also a policy for your grandkids”.
– ‘Bad luck and slip-ups’ –
But beyond the issues preoccupying voters in the east, whose economic output continues to lag behind the west three decades after reunification, a series of gaffes by Baerbock in recent weeks has taken some of the shine off.
“There wasn’t a Baerbock effect in the Saxony-Anhalt election — if anything she probably weighed the state party down with oversights, bad luck and slip-ups,” business newspaper Handelsblatt said.
A failure to declare to parliament a bonus she received from the party and inaccuracies — since corrected — on her CV have undermined the party’s message of improved transparency.
Comments by Habeck on a visit to Kiev last month appearing to back supplying arms to Ukraine added to negative headlines, even if he quickly rowed them back.
Green proposals for hiking petrol prices and eliminating domestic flights in favour of rail and bus connections have also gone down badly in some quarters.
Senior Green officials admit it will be an uphill battle to counter conservative bids to paint them as a party just for latte-sipping, electric vehicle-driving urbanites.
“We have got to keep working on making clear that we are a party at home in cities and the countryside,” parliamentary group leader Katrin Goering-Eckardt, who is from the eastern state of Thuringia, told public radio.