The rise of the far-right in Germany has been well documented in the global media. But in the southern state of Bavaria, its popularity is being eclipsed by the opposite end of the spectrum.
Recent polls put the Green party in second place ahead of state elections scheduled for October 14, which could make them kingmakers in any future coalition. Left-leaning politicians across Europe are watching with interest as they look for ways to counter the far-right surge on the continent.
In Bavaria’s capital Munich, the beer-fueled ‘Oktoberfest’ is in full swing and Green party politicians have joined in the celebrations — making sure the TV cameras are there to record the moment. This is a party keen to show off its sense of local identity.
The 33-year-old co-leader of the Bavarian Green party, Katharina Schulze, recently attended Oktoberfest celebrations in full traditional dress. In breezy tones on the campaign trail, she has repeatedly claimed there is ‘something in the air’ — that the political landscape is changing. She’s polling ahead of the center-left Social Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
“What is really annoying a lot of people today is that we are always talking about hatred, hate speech, escalation. We are not focusing on that. Of course there are challenges we have to tackle courageously, but we need solutions and clever ideas — not always this constant complaining about how terrible everything is — just do it,” Schulze recently told a campaign rally.
It’s a message that appears to be resonating. The Green party is overtaking the Social Democrats in several German cities. Its leaders champion a radically different agenda: open borders and deeper European integration. They say Germany should be proud of taking in more than 1 million refugees.
“In times when there’s a lot of fear of a rising far right and a Germany that is closing down, it’s a narrative that is now doing quite well for them,” says Julian Göpffarth, a German political analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The rise of the far right has received widespread media coverage and polls have the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany or ‘AfD’ party in third place. But the Greens believe they have the momentum.
“Of course news is always driven by what is more shocking. And that’s why I think it’s not as much covered as the rise of the AfD,” said Göpffarth.
He added that the Greens have learned from their rivals’ success, adopting some of the tactics that have driven far right support and playing up their candidates’ local attachment.
“To also strike some of the tones that the AfD has set, for example this ‘Heimat’ [homeland] narrative trying to have a kind of Green perspective on what your homeland can represent for you in terms of ecology,” he said.
As part of that narrative, the Greens have criticized some big construction projects as attacks on Bavaria, accusing the government of pouring concrete over the "beautiful homeland."
Is this the rise of a new green populism in Europe? The opportunity is there, said analyst Leopold Traugott of the London-based policy group Open Europe.
“There are some aspects that play into the success of the Green party that you can find in many European countries. There is the weakness of the main two political parties on the center-left and center-right in Germany, and there is the increasing polarization in a political debate that drives people both to the extreme ‘open’ and extreme ‘closing’ parties.”
Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union party (CSU), allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, look set to lose their absolute majority in the October 14 election. Complicated coalition talks could follow, with the Green party in prime position to seek power.
The Green’s broader challenge is to take its momentum deeper into Germany and Europe. Many analysts remain skeptical.
“I’m not sure if many of the people are convinced by Green politics or policymaking as such but are more frustrated with the SPD [Social Democrats] or with other more left-leaning parties,” said analyst Göpffarth.
In his view, Germany’s powerful industries might act as a brake on Green support.
“Germany has sometimes been seen as the heartland for the Green party," he added. "On the other hand, you have a very strong car industry, and of course that is the tension that the party has to grapple with.”
They are examples of the tensions that are pulling apart the traditional two-party centrist systems in many European countries. In Bavaria, the fragmentation of European politics is being played out in miniature — and the Green party hopes success there could mark the birthplace of a new far-left surge on the continent.