MUNICH — Bavaria is riding the crest of a green wave.
With major parties slated to lose support in Sunday’s state election, the big winner is expected to be the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is poised to enter Bavaria’s regional parliament for the first time. But voters are also flocking to the pro-immigration, left-wing Bavarian Greens.
Recent surveys put the Greens on up to 19 percent of the vote in Bavaria — double their 2013 result. If the polls hold true, they would overtake the Social Democrats (SPD) to become Bavaria’s second-largest party. The AfD is polling as high as 14 percent.
Such a result would upend the status quo in Bavaria, where the conservative Christian Social Union, the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has dominated politics for 60 years. It would also make the Greens a potential coalition partner for the CSU.
But the Green surge is not limited to Bavaria. In last year’s general election, the party won around 9 percent of the vote. Now, multiple surveys show the Greens polling at 15-17 percent nationally, catching up with or even overtaking the SPD.
“We are the only party that does not keep zig-zagging from one day to the other” — Katharina Schulze
Green leaders say that voters appreciate the party’s clear stance on issues like migration, climate change and European integration.
As in other countries, the rise of a far-right party has pushed Germany’s national debate toward the right, with many parties adopting a harsher rhetoric, particularly on migration. The CSU, in particular, has moved sharply to the right.
The Greens, however, have stuck to their pro-immigration, pro-European position. As other parties became consumed by quarrels over asylum policy, with the CSU’s rightward shift bringing the government close to collapse, the Greens exuded a calm stability.
“We are the only party that does not keep zig-zagging from one day to the other,” Katharina Schulze, the co-leader of the Bavarian Greens, told POLITICO on the sidelines of a campaign event in Munich city center on Thursday.
“People tell me that they are tired of fear-mongering, that they want courageous policies. We try to find new answers to problems.”
Changing of political winds
While dissatisfaction with Germany’s ruling parties is a major factor in the Greens’ sudden rise, analysts say the party has also been helped by a wider shift in politics.
“Other parties — and that’s also why they argue among themselves — are struggling to cope with the fact that the main political divide is shifting,” said Michael Koß, a political scientist at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University.
The classic conflict of right versus left, with its debates over the redistribution of wealth and other socio-economic issues, is gradually being replaced by a new ideological divide, he argued.
“Call it cosmopolitans versus isolationists, liberal-alternative views versus traditional-authoritarian views, Europhiles versus Euroskeptics,” Koß said.
As this shift is a long-term trend, Koß added, the current Green upswing is unlikely to be temporary, in contrast to the party’s surge in 2011, when concerns over nuclear energy after Japan’s Fukushima disaster boosted its support.
The current rise of the Greens has hit the SPD particularly hard. A nationwide survey this month showed that 42 percent of “new” Green voters had cast their ballot for the SPD last year. Another quarter were former CDU/CSU voters.
“I know people from volunteering with asylum seekers and in church, they say they can’t vote CSU because that rhetoric does not fit in the Christian worldview” — Claudia Köhler
The surge underscores the Greens’ rapid evolution: The former protest party has not only become a potential coalition partner, but is on course to become what Germans call a Volkspartei — a party appealing to wide sections of society.
Its list of Bavarian candidates reflects the party’s broadening approach. The stereotypical Green eco-warrior has long been replaced by leaders like Schulze, who fuses feminism and Bavarian pride, or people like Claudia Köhler, a Green candidate in Munich.
Köhler, who likes to wear a traditional Bavarian jacket, prides herself on her involvement in church activities and the volunteer fire department, and describes herself as “conservative, but in the best sense.”
Her policies, however, are Green to the core: sustainability, investment in infrastructure and education, a humane asylum policy. “The Latin conservare means to preserve, and I intend to preserve our values and our environment,” she said.
The Greens’ approach to migration and asylum has also won the party plaudits from traditionally conservative parts of society.
“I know people from volunteering with asylum seekers and in church, they say they can’t vote CSU because that rhetoric does not fit in the Christian worldview,” Köhler said.
Bavarian premier Markus Söder and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, both CSU politicians, have prompted outrage with speeches and policies seen as pandering to the right.
In Bavaria, Söder was ridiculed for ordering Christian crosses to be hung in all public buildings; his law granting the Bavarian police sweeping powers prompted tens of thousands to take to the streets, Munich’s largest protest in years.
Feeling the heat
Despite their wider approach, environmentalism remains a cornerstone for the Greens, and Köhler believes that growing awareness on climate change has also played a role in the party’s surge at the polls.
“People are feeling it. We had an extraordinarily hot summer. People tell me: ‘You Greens were right all along,’” she said.
Among voters listening to Schulze and other Green leaders speak in Munich on Thursday, climate change was a major concern. But many said they are also fed up with the CSU’s rightward shift and the ruling party’s rhetoric on migration.
“Environmental issues are important, and I don’t like the idea of shutting everybody out,” said Constanze Maxhofer, an IT specialist who previously voted for the CSU and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).
“I don’t like CSU’s tactical populism, they’re trying to win back AfD voters. The crosses everywhere, that’s not tradition, it’s populism,” she added. “It’s time to show the CSU that we’ve had enough.”
The CSU is expected to lose its absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament. It wouldn’t be the first time — the party was forced into a coalition with the FDP in 2008 — but polls suggest a disastrous result on Sunday, even a record low of 33 percent.
They are optimistic but cautious, knowing that about a fifth of voters are still undecided.
The Greens say they are open to entering coalition talks with the CSU, though analysts question their compatibility.
Bavarian co-leader Schulze said compromise is possible, but the party would not move on its fundamental values.
“We are open to talking about fair and environmentally friendly politics — but not about anti-European or authoritarian politics,” Schulze said.
About half of all voters would prefer a CSU-Greens coalition in Bavaria. There are already several states where Merkel’s CDU and the Greens govern side by side, such as Hessen and Baden-Württemberg.
For now, the Bavarian Greens are waiting for Sunday’s results. They are optimistic but cautious, knowing that about a fifth of voters are still undecided.
Whatever the result, it would shape Bavaria’s future for a long time to come, Schulze said.
“I believe this election determines which face Bavaria will show to the world: A cosmopolitan and liberal one — or an authoritarian and nationalist one?”