Berlin, Germany – The German Green Party has announced that Annalena Baerbock, its co-leader, will be its candidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor ahead of elections in September.
“Now begins a new chapter for our party, and if we do it well, for our country,” she told reporters on Monday.
Baerbock has called for a political renewal that will meet the challenges posed by a warming planet and deliver prosperity to all Germans, from poor single-parent families to industrial workers.
“Climate protection is the task of our time. The task of our generation,” she added.
Her candidacy comes at a moment when worries about climate change, frustration with the government’s pandemic response, and fatigue at 15 years of conservative rule have propelled the Greens to likely king-makers once votes are counted later this year.
But the Party’s ambitions lay higher still.
As it nips at the heels of Merkel’s panicked Christian Democratic Union in opinion polls, many are asking: Could a Green chancellor lead the world’s fourth-largest economy?
Baerbock’s green activism began at a young age, when she joined her parents in protesting against the dumping of nuclear waste in her home state, Lower Saxony.
A former trampolinist, she studied law before working in the office of an MEP in Brussels and then moving to the east German coal state of Brandenburg.
There, she quickly ascended the ranks, establishing a reputation as a sharp mind on climate policy and a confident media performer.
She became state chairperson at 28 and an MP at 33.
In 2018, she was elected party co-leader alongside Robert Habeck, the former deputy prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, one of Germany’s smallest states, and an author of several children’s books.
Opponents have criticised Baerbock’s lack of experience, asking whether anyone without governing experience could be suited to Germany’s top job.
“Three years as party leader, MP and [being] the mother of small children toughens you up pretty well,” she has said, in response.
In contrast to the civil war engulfing Merkel’s CDU – and its Bavarian sister party the CSU – over who will succeed Merkel, Baerbock and Habeck seem to have enjoyed a comradely relationship.
Under their joint stewardship, the party has appeared a model of calm professionalism; common flare-ups between the party’s “realist” and “fundamentalist” factions have been subdued.
“Since the two chairpersons were elected, there is no fight at all inside the Green Party. They are unified, demonstrating harmony. They want to get in power: that’s the most important thing and therefore it’s stopped battling between the wings,” said Ansgar Graw, author of The Greens in Power: A Critical Assessment.
Founded by environmental activists in the 80s, the Greens have grown steadily away from their radical, hippy-ish origins.
The party’s only stint in federal government was as junior partner to Gerhard Schröder’s SPD in the late 90s and early 2000s. In that period, despite divisions, it ultimately supported the chancellor’s backing of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, as well as his liberalising welfare reforms.
The party won its first state in 2011, after the Fukushima meltdown drove public dissatisfaction with nuclear power to fever-pitch. The Greens stormed the polls in the former CDU heartland of Baden Württemberg, which has been ruled since by the Greens’ centrist leader Winfried Kretschmann.
“As a whole, the party has become part of the fabric of German society. They appeal not just to their traditional left-libertarian base, but also to centrist voters who care about the environment and have tired of the Christian Democrats,” said Kai Arzhaimer, a political scientist at the University of Mainz.
The party’s draft election manifesto paints a picture of bold transformation, centred around meeting the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees celsius.
It pledges to make all cars emission-free by 2030, advance Germany’s phase-out of coal burning, increase carbon taxes and boost investment into green technologies.
The party also proposes to lift the “debt brake”, a constitutional amendment introduced by the CDU and SPD which severely limits the government’s ability to borrow to finance spending, and which has been temporarily set aside to address the coronavirus pandemic.
“If these rules are too tight, make no economic sense, and prevent what is politically required, they have to be changed,” Habeck argued in conservative newspaper FAZ earlier this year.
“The debt brake should be supplemented by a rule in favour of public investment.”
On foreign policy, the party has said it will balance economic and human rights commitments, and proposes a more interventionist approach than Merkel’s leadership, which prioritised continued access to export markets.
It has been more critical of China and Russia than the CDU, and opposes the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Though it has abandoned former objections to NATO membership, it wants to end its “nuclear sharing agreement”, under which a number of US nuclear weapons are still stored on German soil.
Under Germany’s system of proportional representation, parties generally do not win outright but govern through coalition-building and consensus.
The most recent Forsa poll, published on Wednesday, puts the CDU/CSU at 27 percent and the Greens at 23.
The CDU/CSU’s popularity has weakened due to the behind-schedule vaccination campaign and a string of resignations relating to a corruption scandal over PPE procurement.
But the conservatives still remain in front, with the Greens as potential junior coalition partners.
That prospect is far from appealing to much of the Greens’ base, who would prefer a so-called traffic light coalition with the centre-left SDP and neoliberal FDP, which are on 15 and nine percent respectively.
A socialist alliance with the SDP and Left Party, on eight percent, remains another, yet more distant possibility.
The news this month that Kretschmann would renew his business-friendly coalition with the CDU in Baden Württemberg, home to Mercedes Benz and Porsche, drew consternation among younger and left-wing members.
Sarah Heim, a spokesperson for the Green Youth in the south-western state, is proud of achievements in advancing solar energy and expanding public transport, but laments the influence of the conservatives, who she said have reneged on agreements and impeded its climate agenda.
“If we do end up in a government with the conservatives [in a national government], then that could become frustrating as there is always the possibility for conservative-held ministries to block the progress Green ministries would be working on,” she told Al Jazeera.
The ‘ban’ party
Green politicians acknowledge that the party has a history of over-performing in polls, and questions remain over whether they can overcome the skepticism of the comfortable middle classes at the ballot box in September.
In some quarters, particularly the conservative press, the party has earned the moniker of the “ban party”, a jab at its perceived nanny-state inclinations towards regulating cars, travel and eating habits.
“The Greens are still a party of regulations, of forbidding, rules and permissions, and they have not overcome this image,” said Graw. “It’s in their genes to regulate a lot of things in Germany.”
There is also the issue of managerial competence.
Armin Laschet and Markus Söder, the rivals vying for the candidacy of the CDU and CSU, have years of experience leading Germany’s two most populous states.
“If you compared them with the Prime Ministers of Bavaria or North Rhine Westphalia, people in the end would ask: ‘Are Annalena Baerbock or Robert Habeck experienced enough to sit on the negotiation table in the future years together with President XI, President Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with Mr. Erdogan, and will deal with them successfully?’” Graw told Al Jazeera.
But long-term trends have been bending in the Greens’ favour.
Social surveys have shown that Germans are increasingly better educated, tolerant and concerned about climate disaster.
“The Greens are the biggest beneficiaries of these developments,” said Arzheimer.