The German Green Party Faces Political Oblivion

by Benjamin Studebaker

It’s the worst possible outcome for Germany’s Green Party–Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to form a coalition with it! At first blush, this may not seem so bad. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Greens got some experience governing? Isn’t the whole point of a political party to get itself into government? But recent European electoral history tells us that whenever a left-wing party becomes a junior partner in a coalition led by a right-wing party (and contrary to its international reputation, Merkel’s CDU is quite right wing), it’s the thin end of the wedge. Here’s why.

Sometimes left wing parties can go into coalitions with other left wing parties and things work out. Sometimes right-wing parties can go into other coalitions with right-wing parties and things work out. But when the junior partner is left-wing and the senior partner is on the right, it’s usually a disaster for the left-wing party:

This happens because of what political scientists call the “unity/distinctiveness dilemma“. When a left-wing party is seen to be supporting a right-wing government, it’s hard for the party to convince its supporters of its left-wing bona fides. Left-wing parties in opposition can criticize the government more credibly and wholeheartedly than a coalition partner can, and that means that left-wing voters–who are never going to be very pleased with a party led by the center-right–tend to defect in favor of other left-wing alternatives.

The problem seems to be especially intractable for parties that aren’t usually part of governments. People who vote for the Greens know that the Greens have historically been a minor party and aren’t likely to get power at the national level. They vote for the Greens anyway because they believe it’s more important to take a principled stand than it is to settle for a lesser evil option. Plus, because these parties haven’t been part of government in a while (if ever) and don’t expect to end up in that position, they make elaborate manifesto pledges that they can’t possibly live up to when governing in coalition with a center-right party. Consider the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 promise to eliminate tuition fees. Once they ended up in coalition with the Conservatives, they not only couldn’t eliminate fees–they had to vote to increase them. This shredded the party’s relationship with its young, student base, turning millions of potential Lib-Dem voters into once and future Corbynites. The German SPD wasn’t hurt quite as badly as the Irish Greens or British Lib-Dems because the SPD is a traditional governing party and its supporters are accustomed to moderation and compromise. If you’re on the left in Germany and you want to vote for a party that will stridently stick to its principles, you pick Die Linke or the Greens. Die Linke is your choice if you care more about inequality than climate change, and the Greens are your choice if you care more about climate change than inequality.

In the Anglophone world, we often think of Angela Merkel’s CDU as relatively environmentally minded, but if you’re serious about emissions reduction the Greens will promise you a whole new world of much more radical policy:

Look at some of the huge differences between the CDU, the Greens, and the proposed third member of this coalition, the FDP:

  • The CDU wants to replace fossil fuels by the end of the century. The FDP regards them as indispensable for the foreseeable future. The Greens want to close every coal plant in Germany by 2030.
  • The CDU doesn’t plan to ban internal combustion engines and the FDP hates the idea. The Greens want to do it by 2030.
  • The CDU wants to keep Germany on top of the automobile market. The Greens want to slowly but surely do away with private cars.
  • The CDU and FDP want energy transitions to be market-driven. The Greens want a price floor for carbon emissions.
  • The CDU and FDP are worried that if they adopt more stringent environmental standards than other countries do, Germany will lose international competitiveness. The Greens don’t care about this.

Even if the CDU and FDP make some concessions to the Greens to get them to join the coalition, there’s no way they’ll make enough concessions to satisfy grassroots Green voters. Green voters really care about climate change. It’s not just an issue to them, it’s the issue. As soon as the Greens make concessions–and it’s inevitable that they will–the SPD and Die Linke will pounce. They’ll slam the Greens for betraying the planet, and because the Greens will be in government, they’ll have to defend their decisions. Or worse, make a milquetoast apology video:

It won’t avail them. And yet, if they don’t join Merkel, she’ll blame them (along with the SPD, which has refused to return to coalition) for inflicting an unstable minority government upon the German people. So the Greens are stuck between a rock and a hard place, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s the worst situation a small, up-and-coming left wing party can find itself in. They have enough seats to join a government, but not enough to run one, and in coalition politics the tweeners are roadkill.