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What Happened to Germany’s Greens?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel removes her mask, at the beginning of a Federal Cabinet meeting at the Federal Chancellery, in Berlin, Sept. 8, 2021.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel removes her mask, at the beginning of a Federal Cabinet meeting at the Federal Chancellery, in Berlin, Sept. 8, 2021.

Four months ago, Germany’s Green Party was riding high in the opinion polls and at one point even overtook Angela Merkel’s storied Christian Democrats and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, to briefly become the country’s most popular party in Germany.

As the country headed into the campaign for September 26th federal elections there was much talk that 40-year-old party leader Annalena Baerbock, a fresh face, could become Europe’s first Green head-of-government. Germany’s media described her as the “superior candidate” to succeed longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s retiring from politics.

Stern magazine put her on the cover and announced, “At Last, Something Different.”

But now, two weeks away from voting, and Baerbock seems unlikely to pull off the political equivalent of what British sports-star Emma Raducanu managed this week in winning the U.S. Open tennis tournament. The Greens have slipped to third place according to pollsters, losing around 10 percent since highs in April and May.

Popularity waning

Baerbock’s star has waned with voters worrying how climate-action policies will impact their livelihoods and lifestyles, dashing the party’s hopes of repeating its success in May when it surged past the Social Democrats to capture second place in European parliamentary elections.

The precipitous slump is partly due to the impact of an old political tactic employed by their establishment opponents — labeling the Greens as nagging, didactic and keen to ban things, say pollsters. Baerbock has argued on the campaign trail that there should be a super-ministry with environmental veto powers over other Cabinet departments.

Earlier in the campaign, Christian Democrat leader Armin Laschet was quick to seize on the Greens call for a hike in gas prices, accusing them of wanting to punish working-class motorists and of being too ready to ignore the needs of less-well-off Germans living in rural areas and small towns where public transport is less available. A Green plan to ban short-haul flights also appeared to go down badly with voters and the fall in their support started to be seen in the opinion polling.

On Sunday during a three-way televised debate with Laschet and the leader of the Social Democrats, Olaf Scholz, currently Germany’s finance minister, Baerbock was unable to revive her flagging campaign. She said Germany faced a stark choice between a new start or getting bogged down in “more of the same.”

But snap polling after the debate by broadcaster ARD showed that 41% of those asked thought Scholz was the most compelling performer, compared to 27% for Laschet and 25% for Baerbock.

Part of the Green dip can be blamed on Baerbock, say analysts. While widely seen as tough, talented and highly ambitious, she has come under fire after the discovery of several exaggerations on her official resumé, lapses that undermined her party's commitment to transparency and integrity. And she faced calls to quit over plagiarism claims after it emerged, she copied dozens of passages from other works for a book she published this year.

Baerbock has also had to acknowledge during the campaign to break parliamentary rules by failing to declare thousands of euros she received from her party in addition to her salary as a federal lawmaker. The lapses have allowed critics to cast doubt on whether the 40-year-old is ready for the highest office after serving just eight years as a federal lawmaker.

“The number of unforced errors on the part of Baerbock, from embellishing her resumé to publishing an ill-conceived book, has sown doubts about her suitability. It has become obvious that the Green candidate and those around her may not yet have reached the level of professionalism required to aim at the highest office,” according to Henning Hoff, editor of the Internationale Politik Quarterly, which is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Olaf Scholz

Another key factor has been the surprising campaigning success of Germany’s center-left Social Democrats under the leadership of the candidate for the chancellorship, Olaf Scholz. The story so far of this year’s German election campaign has been the unexpected rise in the fortunes of the Social Democrats. “

With great strategic foresight and remarkable focus, the Social Democrats’ candidate Olaf Scholz is now leading the race to replace Angela Merkel,” according to Hoff.

In April, the SPD was only attracting around 13% support in opinion polls. An Insa poll Monday put the SPD on 26% ahead of Laschet, whose CDU is on 20%. “With the German election campaign entering its final stretch, Scholz’ popularity — always much greater than Baerbock’s and Laschet’s — has finally morphed into support for his party,” says Hoff. “With only two more weeks to go, there is now much to suggest that Germany’s next government will be led by Olaf Scholz,” he adds.

Merkel announced in October 2018 that she would be stepping down as chancellor in 2021. She has held the office since 2005.

Part of the reason for Scholz’s rise has been success in presenting himself as a safe pair of hands and a natural successor to Merkel, say pollsters. His climate-policy proposals are more cautious — suggesting Germans may not be ready to be as green as the Greens.