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Climate is the key issue for voters. Is that helping Germany's Greens?

The candidate for chancellor of the German Green party, Annalena Baerbock, speaks during an election campaign event in Halle near Leipzig, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.
The candidate for chancellor of the German Green party, Annalena Baerbock, speaks during an election campaign event in Halle near Leipzig, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Copyright Jan Woitas/dpa via AP
Copyright Jan Woitas/dpa via AP
By Lauren Chadwick
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The German Greens have increased their support significantly since the 2017 elections but they're still polling below the two traditional centre-right and centre-left German political parties.


Climate change has been ranked ahead of immigration and COVID-19 as German voters’ top election issue ahead of Sunday's vote.

But, for the German Greens, that hasn’t translated into election opinion polls. 

The party has been on the political scene for decades, becoming the largest and one of the most influential Green parties in Europe.

They made recent advances in local elections and increased their support by nearly 10 points in the European parliamentary elections in 2019.

But despite an early surge in national opinion polls in May, the Greens' honeymoon period has since waned, leaving them ranked third nationally, several points behind the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU).

It's a sign of both the Greens' success at entering mainstream German politics and several missteps over the course of the campaign, that they’re now polling at around 16%, much higher than the 8.4% vote share they got in the 2017 general election but lower than their peak of 26% in the polls earlier this year.

Fall from grace

There was much excitement around the Greens after they picked a chancellor candidate in what observers say was a more united and orderly way than other parties.

The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a leather jacket-wearing 40-year-old woman who had never held a government office.

“She came up as a blank sheet for most voters, not very well known with little of an image to build on. And that means that ratings were very favourable in the beginning,” said Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, a political scientist at the University of Mannheim.

The nomination also fell at the same time that the Conservatives had two candidates locked in a tight race to replace Angela Merkel.

“The Greens’ process was super professionally run with no leaks from anyone .. so naturally in contrast [to the Conservatives] the Greens got a couple of high marks for this,” said Rafael Loss at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office.

But soon after Baerbock seemed to stumble in a series of missteps that launched a media frenzy.

In May she apologised for failing to declare a Christmas bonus on her taxes and in early June, she was accused of embellishing her CV by misstating that she was a member of the German Marshall Fund.

Then later that month, she was accused by an Austrian blogger of not properly attributing sources of information in several book passages, an accusation that the publisher denied, but that made the rounds in German media.

She tweeted a thread of apologies in July over repeating a racial slur when recounting a story about a child who refused to use a worksheet with that same word.

“Unfortunately, in the recording of the interview, I quoted the N-word in the emotional description of this unspeakable incident and thus reproduced it myself,” Baerbock said in her apology.

Schmitt-Beck said the attention paid to Baerbock was over "a quite trivial thing that was blown up by the media...I think they were eager to find something, you know, sort of seriously damaging about her."

She was also targeted by a stream of attack ads and disinformation against the Greens, a recent report on the German election found.


Indeed, Baerbock was "significantly more likely to be the target of attacks with conspiracy myths, disinformation and misinformation than SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and CDU Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet,” researchers at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said last week when they released findings from an analysis of 100 of the most shared social media posts.

Traditional challenges

The party has become increasingly mainstream in German politics, and while recognised as a pro-environment party, there are several areas where they struggle to build support.

In the last 2017 parliamentary election, both younger voters and women were more likely to vote for the Greens. Younger voters are also a smaller demographic in Germany's ageing population.

“[Baerbock] is a self-confident, relatively young woman. And I can imagine more conservative parts of the voting population just don't like that,” said Schmitt-Beck, who added that Germans were more used to grey suits than leather jackets.

The Greens traditionally appeal to an urban, well-educated milieu, experts say, and while they have increased their support significantly, they've struggled in Eastern German states.


"There’s evidence of them being successful reaching out to broader voter groups beyond their traditional urban voter milieu but in many parts of Germany they haven’t started doing that yet," Loss said.

German Green Party MEP Rasmus Andresen said that while many older grandparents were supporting the younger generation now in the climate movement, "this is still a challenge for us to reach out to older voters".

"We’re working on it and hopefully, we will get a stronger result in the older generations on Sunday," he added.

'Disappointing climate debate'

The framing of climate action during the three televised debates candidates participated in, Loss said, "privileged short term costs... over the long term costs of inaction.”

Lisa Göldner, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Germany, said it's one of several topics that voters are interested in but that the influence of climate change on other aspects of life isn't yet understood.


"It still hasn’t been understood enough how the climate crisis is also a threat to social equality, it’s a threat to our wealth and our freedom as well," she said.

Andresen said that the climate debate during the election "was quite disappointing and we didn’t have a real debate about the other parts of climate policy [such as that] the cost of [inaction] will be much higher."

And while German voters are concerned about climate, a recent study of Germans' fears showed that the top three issues that Germans worried about were related to economics and included benefit reductions, a rising cost of living and tax increases due to the debt crisis.

"There has rarely been an adequate differentiation between costs and investments," said climate diplomacy researcher at the E3G think tank Jule Könneke about the policy debate during the election.

"Too often, debates have been introduced with the question of costs, and climate protection has been presented primarily as expensive and a burden."


Climate change has only increased in importance in the election after the July floods that killed 180 people in Germany, but the tragedy did not result in any polling increase for the Greens.

"Annalena Baerbock and the Greens had to be much more cautious because she doesn’t actually hold any government responsibility at the moment so the Greens could not appear as though they were exploiting the tragedy for electoral purposes," said Loss.

But for Green politicians, there is a lot of hope. It's the first time the party has presented a chancellor candidate and they're polling much higher than in 2017.

Most analysts expect that they will likely enter a governing coalition and could be kingmakers that determine which potential coalition comes through. They're also likely to have the best election showing since the party's founding, experts say.

"It’s a time of change in Germany and this means that people are a bit more they don’t stick to the parties they may have voted for [previously]," said Andresen, who pointed out that many German voters remain undecided.


"We are still campaigning and I think we will still end up with a strong result on Sunday," he said.

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