The success of the Green Party in Southwest Germany


Daniel Belling is a PhD researcher in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent, with an interest in the impact of policy advisors on economic policymaking and public finance. For more information visit

The state elections on May 13th marked a historic moment for German democracy. For the first time the Green Party (Alliance 90/The Greens) came first, overtaking the conservative CDU in Baden-Württemberg to win the election by a 3 percent margin. In a proportional electoral system with voters having only one vote for both the local candidate and the party (hence strategic voting is prevented) 30.3 percent favoured the party of the incumbent state prime minister Winfried Kretschmann.

This could be nothing special – if it weren’t a party that considered itself as anti-establishment for a long time and is in comparison to the Social Democrats and the CDU still a young party. What is more, although over time vote shares have risen steadily it is only in Baden-Wuerttemberg that the Green Party is that successful. So what is it about the party or the state in the Southwest that is breeding ground for them?

Five years ago under the impression of the nuclear disaster of Fukushima which occurred just one week before the election in 2011 the Greens have already been able to double their vote share to form a coalition with the Social Democrats. Although back then it was not completely unexpected, it nevertheless came as a surprise for a pampered CDU party which has governed the state for more than 50 years.

This time the success of the Greens has been expected to some degree. It is one more piece of evidence for a shaky party system in which established parties are getting weaker, losing their voters to other political groups. In the aftermath of the Red-Green federal government between 1998 and 2005, former SPD voters turned their back to the social democrats to support the Left Party, which is now the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag. Even more drastically the liberal FDP went from the government benches right into political marginalisation when they dropped out of the parliament in 2013. Their voters dispersed to other parties in disappointment about what was perceived as clientele politics by the Free Democrats.

With the refugee crisis setting in in Germany another chapter of political fragmentation in Germany is opened. The recent elections also saw another surge in vote share for the right wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The AfD has attracted non-voters and former CDU supporters that oppose Chancellor Angela Merkels open immigration policy. The new nationalist party hit a nerve in an increased share of the population with national-conservative sentiments.

The Greens in the Southwest

The German party system is undergoing radical changes which makes the formation of coalitions increasingly difficult (yet also leading to new cross-partisan coalitions). In Baden-Württemberg the success of the Green Party is exceptional and marks an interesting case. While usually a party gains votes more or less equally in state elections if the prevalent issue is in their favour or competing parties are performing badly, the Green surge of votes is exclusively the case for Baden-Württemberg. Other states have not seen these huge increases in vote shares for the Green Party. As an example one can compare the last three state elections in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, which since 2006 take place at the same day. This can be seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 Green Party vote shares in 3 federal states with last elections on 13th March 2016

So why is it that the Green Party generally stays small in terms of vote shares (most times single digit), but becomes very successful in one particular state?

Stein Rokkan’s theory of social cleavages famously illustrated the distinction between people in the urban area and the countryside. For the departure of ecological parties in the 1980s, there is evidence that this cleavage is still existent, yet for different reasons. The liberal young and well educated urban elites are much more likely to vote for green parties (see for example cities with a large alternative cultural scene like Bristol in the UK or the Berlin district of Kreuzberg). But also university cities like Brighton (where Caroline Lucas was elected as MP in 2010 and confirmed last year) and some smaller cities in Germany (like Freiburg and Tubingen) are green strongholds. The German Greens are also performing well in the city states of Hamburg and Berlin, yet they were never as strong as to lead a government as the bigger party.

What is remarkable in the case of Baden-Württemberg are two aspects: First, as a large state with many people living at the countryside it is not a state one would expect a party with mainly urban and well educated voters to win. This is also displayed in the fact that the state with its 12 million people has been described as rather conservative and less progressive than other places in Germany. In the many villages between the Rhine and the Danube River people have a sense for Christian traditions and are passionate members of local folkloristic clubs. Particularly in the Swabian Mountains and the Black Forests tourists from around the world can easily get the feeling to be in a haven of peace in a fast moving world.

Second, Baden-Württemberg is a state with a strong automotive industry with Daimler and Porsche as main employers in the state. The industry in the Stuttgart region is heavily based on the existence of the two large employers and a whole network of suppliers brings investment and jobs to the region. Workers in the automotive industry are not necessarily the core clientele of green politics which tend to have an aversion to air polluting vehicles. What is more, Baden-Württemberg is often considered as the state of the Tüftler (tinkerers) associated with values of productivity and thrift, and their people from outsiders mockingly seen as stingy. The economic strength of the state is also displayed in a surprisingly high number of so-called ‘hidden champions’ as market leaders in small industries.

Against this background it should be against the odds that the Green Party is that successful in Baden-Württemberg. One may think that there is a misunderstanding of what the Green Party stands for – a mismatch based on uninformed voters. Yet the reality is far from it (and as political scientists know, voters are not fools). To understand this puzzle one have to take a closer look on the development of the Green Party in this particular federal state. Three phases seem to be important for getting a broad picture of these developments.

The origins

Although the origin of Green parties is associated with a range of social movements that became active in the 70s and 80s, the particular frame in which the Greens in the southwest emerged is somewhat different. The end of the 1970s saw large protests against a planned nuclear plant close to the tranquil village of Wyhl in the Rhine valley region. It was the first time that people across generations expressed anger on what they perceived as a political elite ignoring the concerns of local communities. At this time the destruction of nature and the disturbance of the biological equilibrium was the main concern of the protesters. It led to the emergence of the German anti-nuclear movement of the 80s.

While in other places the foundation of the Green Party was mainly driven by radical ideas about a better society and found part of its origins in the anti-capitalist student movement in 1968, this has been different for Baden-Württemberg. The first people that joined the Greens were mainly nature conservationists concerned with poisoned rivers and dying forests. Indeed, this does not contradict traditional values but fits to ideas of traditional ways of production and conservation. Based on this it comes as no surprise that the Greens have always performed better in state elections in Baden-Württemberg than in other states (see again figure 1 for a more comprehensive overview). Yet this does not explain the large success at the election 5 years ago.

2011: Assuming office

While in the long run the core clientele is seen as defining the strength of a party, political analysts often argue that issue salience may be the most powerful explanation for sudden changes in the election. In order to be considered as alternative for disappointed voters a party needs a momentum. The Green Party had this momentum in 2011 when the events in Fukushima reminded people of the danger of nuclear energy. The sudden U-turn of Chancellor Merkel, who decided to power off the oldest nuclear plants despite the fact that her government prolonged their maturity periods some months before, could not prevent people from casting their votes for the Greens.

Yet another development has amplified the inflow of voters for the Greens in Baden-Württemberg. Just as two decades before in Wyhl another construction project gave reason for huge anger and led to demonstrations with thousands of participants. The planned new railway station in Stuttgart (Stuttgart 21) was considered by large parts of the population as ineffective, too expensive, and dangerous for the local natural environment. Most critically it was considered as an undemocratic and non-transparent elite project of the then CDU led state government. Discontent rose when the government tried to inhibit an open discourse by arguing that the critique is unqualified since it was based on wrong information. Yet the tipping point was reached when riot police crashed a peaceful demonstration of citizens (including school children) in September 2010, which was presumably mandated by the state government.

The Green Party was then the only party genuinely opposed to the project, calling for a suspension and a referendum on the project. As a consequence, many citizens voted for the Green Party for the first time in their life, with most of them former CDU voters. After the election in March 2011 a new government assumed office with a Green prime minister and the SPD as junior partner. They kept their promises to abandon tuition fees, expanded all-day schools and called a referendum on the Stuttgart 21 construction project. When the citizens decided to continue the financing of the project, the government accepted the result without any objection.

2016: Re-Election

If one has to give a reason for the unbroken success story of the Green Party, it is the popularity of the Green Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann. When he assumed office five years ago he was already popular also across conservative voters. At first sight, he seems to be anything but the cliché of a green politician: He is a devout Catholic and member of a local shooting club. As a politician he acts calm but determined with a pragmatic political vision. His down-to-earth attitude and prudence in political matters allow for a comparison with chancellor Merkel. Both can be seen as charismatic leaders, hence It is also no coincidence that the approval rates of Kretschmann are the highest compared to his state prime minister colleagues.

Overall he embodies the values of the people in the Southwest, making him an excellent Landesvater (father figure). Opinion polls prior to the election showed that even a plurality of CDU voters prefer Kretschmann over the CDU candidate for the prime minister position. Also did entrepreneurs who traditionally support the conservatives came out to vote for the Greens – another strong indication for the credibility that he has gained over the last years.

Five years ago the electoral success of the Green Party was primarily based on the prevalence of the environmental issue - on a non-permanent momentum. Now the popularity of the Prime Minister has made it possible for the Green Party to centre their campaign on the person. Posters and billboards read ‘vote Greens for Kretschmann’ which is not unproblematic for a party that prefers to convince with arguments rather than people.

Their campaign was nonetheless based on both, political substance and a personality cult. The overarching issue before the election was the handling of the refugee crisis, particularly the local relocation of refugees, the provision of accommodation and an easing of entitlements for medical care. Kretschmann came out as a strong supporter of chancellor Merkel’s refugee politics, saying that he ‘prays every day’ for her. This comes to a time when Merkel finds decreasing support for her politics in her own CDU party and within the wider population and electorate.

Five years ago the Greens in other states gained from the prevalence of the environment issue. This time it was only the Greens of Baden-Württemberg that managed to attract new voters, the Greens in other states were resoundingly defeated. Therefore, the combination of a successful prime minister being a strong voice for tolerance and an advocator of a culture of welcoming refugees arguably amplified the impact of the Green Party in the migration debate.

What explains the success of the Greens?

Looking at the electoral result it could be asked whether the Greens have become an establishment party, slowly but steadily moving towards the political centre between the SPD and the CDU. Although the Green Party in Baden-Württemberg has ever been slightly more realist and less ideological than in other states, the fundamentals of what is known as green politics are still present. However, these fundamentals are adjusted in a way in order to resonate with the needs and interests of the people.

Indeed, the politics of the Greens in government is pragmatic without losing a sense of direction. As an example, the need for a green transformation of the industry is still emphasised, yet instead of demonising cars and shaming corporations the government supports green innovations and stays in dialogue with business. Therefore, the Greens have found a way to combine the prevalent industrial frame (whereas productivity brings prosperity) with the ecological (and rather post-industrial) frame of sustainable production.

Ecological parties have been seen as too narrow in their political agenda, solely focussing on environmental issues which are not relevant for the majority of people. As a result if the environmental issue is pressing (often as a consequence of natural disasters) these parties got interested for more than their key voters. However, it can create a momentum that puts the party in the spotlight. The quest for Green parties in general is then how to keep the attention high for them and broaden the key voter base. In Baden-Württemberg this was possible due to the popularity of the Prime Minister, yet to focus on one person might be problematic for a party that wants to convince people with arguments rather than faces and in which participation and direct democracy are high political values.

A more sustainable way is to make the party less vulnerable to rapid changes of prevalent policy issues. The Green Party in Baden-Württemberg has illustrated how this can be done. They developed a policy frame that goes beyond the environment as a single issue and adjusted it to the local industrial context, by that becoming a green economic party. This way they may be able to overcome the nature-industry cleavage that was stressed at the time green parties emerged.

This of course comes at a price: It means that the parties have to become more professional and less anti-establishment in their political strategies. Maybe the greatest challenge is to keep a critical distance to business on one hand, and the connection to social movements on the other. Although this is not without controversy, the Greens in Baden-Württemberg can serve as a good example on how to balance out these two aspects of modern green politics.

Copyright © 2015 The Ballot Box
Template By Herdiansyah Hamzah | Design By Jabin Law