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

German Greens Going Mainstream

Air Date: Week of

Twenty years in to making strides, the Green Party stands poised to enter the German government. On Sunday, September 27th, German voters go to the polls in what's expected to be a close election. If Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union does not win enough support, Mr. Kohl will step down, and The Greens could be asked to form a coalition government with the Social Democrats. That would mark the Greens passing from a fringe party with a few state office holders into a serious national political force. The Greens first entered Parliament 11 years ago in a Germany divided by cold war politics. Today, despite some in-fighting, they have a significant following. Alexa Dvorson reports during the closing days of the campaign.


CURWOOD: For more than 20 years they're been shouting from the shores at Germany's rigid political mainstream. Now the Green Party stands poised to enter the government. On Sunday, September 27th, German voters go to the polls in what's expected to be a close election. If Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and his governing partners do not win enough electoral support, Mr. Kohl will step down. The Greens, then, could be asked to form a coalition government with the present opposition, the Social Democrats. That would mark the Greens' passing from a fringe party with a few state office holders into a serious national political force. The Greens first entered Parliament 11 years ago in a Germany divided by Cold War politics. Today, they remain notorious for infighting and occasional foot-in-mouth mishaps, but still maintain a significant following. Alexa Dvorson reports during the closing days of the campaign.

(Blues music plays)

DVORSON: The music at a Green Party rally seems oddly fitting in this blustery day in the suburb of Hamburg. The band is playing the blues.

(Man, singing: "Well I woke up this morning and everything looked so sad. Looked so sad...")

DVORSON: Just after the Green's party convention this spring, when they announced a proposal to raise the price of gasoline to the equivalent of nearly $12 a gallon, one of Germany's popular weeklies, Stern, ran a cover depicting party leader Joschka Fischer pointing a fuel dispenser nozzle at his head with his finger on the trigger. The doctored image spoke for itself, but a caption might have read, "The Greens Commit Eco-Suicide." Now, in the midst of a 7- week tour of the country in his eco-friendly campaign bus, Joschka Fischer takes it all in stride.

FISCHER: I think I was the only politician in Germany which was within 4 weeks twice on the cover of the Stern. So, well, that was a great honor (laughs).

DVORSON: Then there was the plan to set a national speed limit of 60 miles per hour on the Autobahn and raising jet fuel tax so high that most Germans would only be able to afford overseas flights once every 5 years. In this vacation-loving, car-crazy country, the only one in the European Union without a speed limit, the party's ratings took a free-fall. Since withdrawing all 3 proposals, Fischer now freely admits they'd made a mistake.

FISCHER: It was a great, great disaster, this party convention. Now, we are able to come back. We'll get a much better response than most of the polls estimate now.

DVORSON: Polls now estimate that 7% of the vote will go to the Greens, which would guarantee their presence in the lower house of Parliament and could win them a few government ministries. That all depends on how well their potential coalition partners, the Social Democrats, or SPD, fare on election day. The Greens and the Social Democrats have engaged in an uneasy courtship in a bid to oust Chancellor Helmut Kohl after 16 years in power. The SPD's assistant energy spokesman, Wolfgang Dirschauer, calls the partnership pragmatic, if provocative.

DIRSCHAUER: If we feel sometimes that the Greens are a bit a pain in the rear, it's a necessary pain and a necessary push, because the SPD has traditionally been compared with a tank or a tank ship, which is huge and impressive and steady-going. But it's terribly slow to change course. And it's taken us about 20 years to accept that environmental policy is not a fringe topic but a major issue. There will be crisis, but if you look at any government in the world there's crisis, there's problems. This is what government is about. And we're asking, is Mr. Fischer acceptable? Well, look at other countries. Is Mr. Clinton acceptable?

(Fischer speaks in German on mike to a crowd's applause)

DVORSON: Joschka Fischer has come far since the long-haired jeans and T-shirt days of the Green Party's origins in the 70s. But his style remains brash, sometimes abrasive. He's not afraid to tell Germans they'll inevitably need an energy tax, and a national speed limit. But the Greens are not a one-issue party anymore. To paraphrase a campaign slogan from abroad, "It's not just the ecology, stupid." Recognizing Germans' reluctance to embrace change and adapt to globalization, he takes pains to show them the link between job security at home, human rights abroad, and global accountability.

(Sounds of engines running)

FISCHER: We need investments, private investments, in emerging markets. We support that very strongly. But these cannot be investments under the condition of a dictatorship, under the condition of suppression of human rights. So globalism means global responsibility for one world. And this is not only a question for human rights groups or for environmentalists. This is a question for business, too. And more and more people, even in southern Europe, see that it's a good business.

DVORSON: Germans have good reason to be preoccupied with the business of job creation. With 11% of the workforce unemployed, it's Topic A on the national agenda. The task for the Greens is to convince voters that environmental reforms could mean more, not less, jobs. But that will require a long investment in training and education. It's likely that if the Social Democrats invite them to join a coalition government, the Environment Ministry will go to the Greens. But Matthias von Hein, an editor at the Voice of Germany International radio, doubts whether the Greens will be able to call the shots on all environmental issues.

VON HEIN: Definitely not. The environmental policy must always be balanced against all the other interests. Even up to now, the Environmental Ministry never had a very, very strong standing. Germany can be happy that they do have an environmental minister at all, but whenever it comes to matters of real significance, the Environmental Ministry has always been overridden by other interests.

(Engines running)

DVORSON: At this Cologne gas station, nobody enjoys paying the equivalent of $3.50 a gallon for regular unleaded. But these German motorists say they would support a greener environmental policy, including an energy tax.

WOMAN [Speaks in German] TRANSLATOR: I think the Greens can accomplish more in a coalition with the Social Democrats, and that's why I'm voting for them, for the first time. I want a change in government. I don't think economic and environmental interests have to contradict each other. That's old hat.

WOMAN [Speaks in German] TRANSLATOR: It won't change much if they win. I am less worried about the price of gas than bad auto policies. You can't park anywhere, it's so expensive. And on the other hand, the auto industry is getting a big boost because of the economic crisis. That's a contradiction. Gas is already taxed so much. How much more will we have to pay?

MAN [Speaks in German] TRANSLATOR: Anything's better than what we've got now. I can't identify with the present government at all, and that's why any other environmental policy will be better, too. I'm not sure how the Greens and Social Democrats will do, but something has to beat this.

(Fischer speaks in German on a mike at a rally)

DVORSON: To make credible coalition partners, the Greens must overcome the division between their more pragmatic wing, known as the "realos," and their fundamentalist hard core, the "fundies." Historically, the party is not known for its internal harmony, but munching on fresh fruit in his eco-tour bus, Joschka Fischer says while drawing from American inspiration, the party's evolution reflects Germany's own environmental consciousness, which has now become a fact of life.

FISCHER: It's a problem of our country. I don't know how many square miles we have but I think we are a little bit smaller than Texas, with 80 million people. Eighty million people. That's a very high crowded area, so environmentalism here is not an ideological question; it's a question of everyday living. So I think the Green Party has a very good perspective here. The Greens are, well, much more an American party than a German party, because we are a grassroot party. We are grown up, decentralized, from the bottom.

(Blues music again)

DVORSON: American environmentalists might be green with envy that Germany has a Green Party at all. So-called Red-Green coalitions between Greens and Social Democrats are already in place in 4 state governments. Whether a greening of Germany's federal government begins after September 27th is now in voters' hands. One things is clear. With its sunflower logo and in-your-face politics, in the government or in opposition, the German Green Party is here to stay.

(Blues music continues)

DVORSON: For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Hamburg.



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