Germany’s Greens lose their lustre as election heats up

In her latest television appearance, Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for Germany’s chancellor, confronted an unusual prop: a raw steak, placed across from her on the interviewer’s desk. Would she eat it, he asked, and would Germans still be allowed to grill under a Green chancellor?

“Everyone can eat what they want in this country,” Baerbock told the Bild Live programme with a laugh. “I actually like grilling . . . though I’m not sure that steak would fit on my grill.”

The half-joking exchange reflects a fresh image problem for the Greens. They have ridden high in public opinion since Baerbock’s candidacy was announced in April for the 2021 parliamentary elections.

But a string of gaffes and disputes now have them on the defensive — sometimes even allowing their rivals to raise again a stereotype the Greens find toughest to break: that they are Verbotspartei, which roughly translates as the party that loves to ban things.

The interviewer’s steak question was an awkward reminder of one of the eco-party’s blunders from the 2013 parliamentary elections, when the Greens proposed a Veggie Day at office canteens, sparking outrage among meat-loving Germans. They got nine per cent of the vote.

For elections this September, which will mark the end of Angela Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor, the Greens aim to do things differently.

They have touted themselves as drivers of change, which surveys suggest the country’s electorate wants — particularly more robust climate policies. Baerbock also positioned the Greens as moderate enough to attract mainstream voters away from Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats, long the dominant forces of German politics.

In the weeks following her nomination, the Greens overtook the CDU in the polls, sometimes reaching highs of 28 per cent. But their ratings have since slipped as Baerbock’s balancing act between change and continuity has wobbled.

Over the past two weeks, the party has made several missteps that, while unlikely to knock them out of the race, have taken the sheen off their electoral lustre and pointed to potential problems ahead.

It started with news that Baerbock failed to report to the Bundestag president some of her income from the Green Party leadership, as required, until this March.

Baerbock apologised for what she called a “stupid mistake,” and, compared to a recent CDU mask procurement corruption scandal, the amount was relatively small, about €25,000. For Germans, though, it was not about the money, but the Greens failing to live up to their own ethical standards.

“As they have put morals first in politics, now they are being measured by this standard,” said Peter Matuschek, head analyst of polling institute Forsa.

A few days later came a foreign policy stumble, when party co-head Robert Habeck visited Ukraine and said the country needed “defensive weapons”. This was loudly rejected by the Greens’ pacifist base, and also contradicts Germany’s tight arms policies. He later argued he meant kit such as night goggles or mine detection equipment.

Baerbock’s other mis-step was telling Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild, there should be no more short-haul flights. She meant domestic flights should be replaced by train travel. But in a country obsessed with quick flights to Spain’s Mallorca, a beloved holiday spot, the damage was done.

A leading politician from the pro-business Free Democrats, Marco Buschmann, called it a “classic example of the Greens’ ban fetish.” The CDU’s Armin Laschet, her main electoral rival, said: “With everything where they want to have a populist effect, they call for bans.”

The main strategy for the Greens right now is to remain calm, said Arne Jungjohann, an analyst with the Green-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation. “Baerbock has to show that she can take the heat.”

Only a month ago, when Baerbock’s nomination caused a surge of media hype, the cover of news magazine Spiegel featured a smiling Baerbock, hands on hips, with the headline: “The woman for all seasons.” Last week, by contrast, Spiegel’s cover had a cartoon of Baerbock and Habeck, holding a sunflower — the Greens’ logo — battered by the wind. “Welcome to reality,” it said.

Uwe Jun, a political scientist at Trier University, said the Greens’ position, now four per cent behind the CDU at 21.5 per cent in the latest Insa poll, is not as bad as portrayed. He said the Greens’ recent drop was expected after an initial Baerbock surge. “I don’t think their opportunity to govern in the next coalition is in trouble,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Greens will face growing scrutiny from a public curious whether they can govern, said Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Bavaria. More aggressive attacks will emerge on points harder to counter than insisting barbecues will be allowed.

Münch expects the Greens to struggle against critiques of their ambitious €500bn spending plan to increase jobs and climate protection.

The Greens want to fund it by removing Germany’s debt brake, but that law is enshrined in the constitution and requires two-thirds of the parliament and senate to amend it — nearly impossible given the likely election outcome, where no party would have a majority.

“They will have to admit that they actually don’t know how to finance it. So I think in that respect, the problems have only just begun,” she said.

Regardless of whether the party can stay ahead, the idea of a Green chancellor candidate has become, in effect, a central factor in the German elections — whether voters are for Baerbock, or against her.

“There will be those on one hand saying, ‘we want and need policy change, we want the Green chancellor,’ and others who say, ‘we want to avoid at all costs a Green, inexperienced chancellor,” Münch said. “This is an interesting position for the Greens. They can say: It all hinges on us.”

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