Image: German Green Party leaders Eveline Lemke und Winfried Kretschmann Gruene.de
"A historic change," Winfried Kretschmann of the German Green Party says. He is not kidding. The results of elections this week in two German states has sent a strong message to the incumbent parties, and makes a Green Party member governor of a German state for the first time. How does this election change the political landscape, and what does it mean for the future of environmental politics in Germany?Strong Green Showing in Two State Elections
Kretschmann's Green Party win ends 59 years of control by the Christian Democrats (CDU) in the wealthy, industrial German State of Baden-Württemberg, home of Daimler and Porsche. The conservative CDU still got the most votes, 39 percent, but their coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) dropped to only 5.4 percent, leaving the team short of a majority. This opened the door for the Greens, with 24.2 percent, to form a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). This makes Kretschmann the first governor of a state in Germany, and means that Merkel's CDU will now have to face Kretschmann and his Green party in discussions at the national level.
And it was not an isolated case. In neighboring Rheinland-Pfalz, the Greens knocked the Social Democrats (SPD) from their absolute majority, forcing the SPD to accept the Greens as coalition members in order to preserve their hold on the state government.
Referendum on Nuclear Power
The election results may represent a "perfect storm" of political forces. Germans are feeling betrayed by the CDU-FDP decision to extend the lifespan at 17 nuclear plants. Doing so required them to overturn a law, written under the SPD-Green coalition that held power in 2000, that would have shut down all nuclear plants in Germany by 2020 under a planned obsolescence scheme.
Then Japan's crisis at Fukushima struck. The CDU made an nuclear about-face, shutting down 7 nuclear plants temporarily and calling for a three-month moratorium on extensions for nuclear plant operating permits.
The incumbent governor of Baden-Württemberg, Stefan Mappus, a long-time defendant of nuclear power, started flip-flopping -- which only further reduced public trust in the ability of the CDU to steer a clean course on the complicated nuclear question. The Greens mobilized the vote, and the results are history.
Not Only Nuclear
Pundits have noted that it is easy to be the underdog, criticizing incumbent policies without having to put your own stance to the reality test. The Green party tasted national political influence in 1998 - 2002, when they played second fiddle to the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schroeder. But after winning the bid to shut down nuclear for good, their platform lost resonance with voters. Certainly nuclear power will be on the governing agenda in Baden-Württemberg, where two nuclear power plants are shut down pending further review in the wake of Fukushima.
But there are other important questions as well, first and foremost of which goes under the project name "Stuttgart 21" -- the planned construction of a new train station intended to achieve a 30% improvement in rail-traffic capacity in Stuttgart, a key junction point. The Greens argue that Stuttgart 21 cannot achieve the planned targets, and that sustainability and cost-effectiveness are better served by restoring and expanding the existing train station, Kopfbahnhof.
Will Greens Go National?
The performance of the greens in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz will be closely watched. Further wins for green-red or red-green leadership are expected in coming elections.
The immediacy of the nuclear question may fade by the time national elections are due, but debate over the future of nuclear power in Germany will keep the question in the headlines. These state elections could foretell a major comeback by the Greens in national elections. And their success in pulling more votes then their usual coalition partners portends more leadership when the Greens are in power. Or it could be a chance for the CDU and FDP to gain back ground by nitpicking the Greens performance now that the Greens must prove they can govern.
More on German Politics:
Japan Nuclear Disaster Triggers Political Frenzy in Germany
Germany Celebrates 20 Years after Reunification
Germany Targets 100% Renewable Electricity by 2050
Eco-Outreach in Germany, With a Turkish Accent
Germany Considers Allowing Seventeen Nuclear Plants To Remain Operating