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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

German Elections

Air Date: Week of

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Germany's parliamentary elections will be held on September 22. Host Diane Toomey talks with reporter Paul Hockenos from Berlin on prospects for the Green Party.


TOOMEY: The possibility of war with Iraq is turning out to be an important campaign issue in the upcoming German elections. Chancellor Gerhard Shröder is against U.S. military action in Iraq. And that’s a popular position in Germany, where a majority of voters say they’re opposed to intervention. Shröder and his Social Democrat Party are trying to hold onto power. Together with the Green Party, they’ve led Germany’s ruling coalition government for the past four years. Until recently though, the Green’s popularity was slipping, and it looked like they’d be voted out in this month’s parliamentary election. But things changed when devastating floods swept through Europe this summer. Reporter Paul Hockenos joins me now from Berlin. Paul, how did the recent floods affect Germany’s political landscape?

HOCKENOS: Well, until the summer floods, the numbers of the Greens and their coalition partner, the Social Democrats, were lagging quite a bit behind that of their conservative challengers. The Greens in particular, though, received a big windfall from the disaster. For decades, the Greens hammered away at issues like global warming, like urban overdevelopment, and the need to find alternative energy sources. Now, they’re saying, and they’re saying it loudly, ‘We told you so.’ And this is something that Germans are listening to. In Germany, in contrast to the United States, there is a consensus that global warming is a man-made phenomenon, and that the extreme weather conditions that we’ve been seeing in Germany and elsewhere in the world are a result of global warming.

TOOMEY: Until the recent floods gave the party the bounce in the polls, it was likely that the Greens would have been voted out of power. How did they get to this point? Why was their position so precarious?

HOCKENOS: Well, the Greens have had a bad string of defeats at the polls over the past couple of years. Ironically, it is the Greens’ traditional voters that have been abandoning them. These are the activists who had been showing up for demonstrations year after year, who worked in grassroots campaigns, or who, for example, blocked the transport of nuclear wastes by camping out on train tracks for weeks on end. Now, these people were very unhappy with the compromises that the Greens have had to make while in power. They didn’t want to see nuclear power phased out over a 20-plus year period. They wanted to see it phased out very quickly, if not immediately. Also the fact that Germany, with the Green foreign minister, took part in the war in Kosovo. This disturbed a lot of traditional Greens. They have roots in the peace movement. There are a lot of pacifists in the Greens, although it is not strictly a pacifist party.

TOOMEY: So then, is the party going after new support, new voters from other sections of society?

HOCKENOS: The Greens have a big problem getting new voters. For one, they’re essentially a West German party, and they’ve not been able to make inroads into eastern Germany. Also, ironically, the Greens don’t make inroads with young voters. For them – and this is really quite surprising – but the Greens are considered to be very uncool. Green politicians, their image is one of beards and wool sweaters and sandals. They tend to remind young people of their parents or their social studies teachers. This is the generation.

TOOMEY: What a horrible image, yes.


TOOMEY : What do you make of the theory that the Greens would be more effective working outside of government, rather than being part of a coalition?

HOCKENOS: There are those people in the Greens who think that the Greens’ role is one of opposition. In fact, when they were formed, they were opposed to politics as such. They have since those years become part of the system. They’ve got position papers as concrete and detailed as the rest of the parties. And I think it would be very difficult for them to go back to this idea of a scourge of the system.

TOOMEY: The Greens used to say they were the anti-party party, but in the four years that they’ve been part of Germany’s ruling coalition government, what have they been able to accomplish from within the system?

HOCKENOS: Well, considering the fact that the Greens are the junior coalition partner, they’ve really led the way in a number of really important reforms. For example, the new citizenship law in Germany has allowed millions of foreigners who lived in the country for decades to finally qualify for citizenship. Also, Germany now boasts Europe’s most stringent arms exports restrictions. There’s a new environmental tax on fossil fuels, a same sex marriage law, and new consumer protection measures. Perhaps most important for the Greens, they’ve engineered a compromise with the energy industry to phase out nuclear power in Germany.

TOOMEY: In Germany, in the German political system, the Greens need to get five percent of the vote nationwide to stay in parliament. The election is going to be held on September 22nd. What’s your take on how they’re going to do on that day?

HOCKENOS: It seems almost certain that the Greens will receive over five percent of the vote, but they have to put together a majority with the Social Democrats in order to receive a mandate to form a government again. In order to get the seven or eight percent like they did in 1998, the Greens are going to have to win back their hardcore traditional supporters. At the moment, they’re trying to scare some of those voters back by posing the alternative of a return of the conservative Christian Democrats, those who held power before 1998. They’re saying it’s either us or it’s them. And despite all the compromises we’ve had to make, we’re still the Greens and we’re still your party.

TOOMEY: Paul Hockenos is a writer and reporter based in Berlin, Germany. Thanks for speaking with me today.

HOCKENOS: Thank you very much.

[MUSIC: Massive Attack, "Hymn of the Big Wheel," BLUE LINES (Virgin Records, 1991)]



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