Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Green success marks SPD failure

The significant fall of Merkel’s CDU in Baden-Württemberg marked a resounding success for the Green party. How should the SPD respond to this political shift?

In George Orwell´s 1984, the ruling party’s Ministry of Truth carries three slogans: ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’ Analogously, following the elections in three German Länder last month, the SPD headquarters might have displayed the slogan: ‘Failure is success.’ On eve of the election, party leaders whitewashed the bad results, emphasising that the SPD will belong to all three future governments. Most importantly, they joyfully announced, the 58 year conservative CDU reign in Baden-Württemberg was finally over!

It is worth reiterating the facts. In Rheinland-Pfalz, the SPD lost its absolute majority, crashing by 9.9 percentage points. In Sachsen-Anhalt and in Baden-Württemberg, the SPD came in third (behind the CDU and the Left Party, and the CDU and the Greens, respectively) and will only be junior partner in both governments.

Most striking are the SPD losses among 18-24 and 35-44 year olds, especially women, in addition to the huge migration of former social democratic voters to the Green Party. There can be no doubt that the social democrats are the losers of the March elections. The extraordinary success of the SPD in February’s Hamburg election was obviously owing to specific circumstances.

The Green Party is the big winner. The party which was founded in 1980 as an ‘anti-party-party’ (Petra Kelly) doubled its votes in Sachsen-Anhalt, and tripled them in Rheinland-Pfalz. In Baden-Württemberg – one of the wealthiest Länder with 10.8mn inhabitants – the Green Party hit the dizzy heights of 24.3%, their best ever result. Front-runner Winfried Kretschmann will become the first Green Minister-President in a coalition with the SPD. Sure enough, this astonishing victory strengthened the position of the Greens nation-wide, and some surveys already predict the Greens overtaking the SPD at federal level.

How does the SPD react to this shift in the balance of power? Party-chairman Sigmar Gabriel´s strategy is to play the problem down and blame the nuclear disaster in Fukushima two weeks earlier. ‘The election in Baden-Württemberg was simply a referendum on atomic energy’, he said. To a large extent this is correct, as the Green Party profited from a high number of former non-voters mobilised through the catastrophe in Japan. Yet it would be negligent to underestimate their strength and wait for the Greens to wear themselves out in government.

A current study by the German Institute for Economic Research DIW shows that the good results are not simply a short-term phenomenon. In recent years, the Green Party has been able to attract young voters on a large scale while at the same time retaining its traditional supporters. According to the DIW, the Green Party holds a ‘long-term and sustainable position’ among a comparatively homogenous group of voters: ‘environmentally conscious, well educated, good earning, middle-aged civil servants and self employed people’, mainly living in the cities. Only 13% of low-educated voters supported the Greens in Baden-Württemberg, compared with 34% of the well-educated.

Two factors explain this development, which also reveal the weaknesses of the SPD. Firstly, the Greens have a continuous team of seasoned party leaders, complimented by a squad of young talents like Tarek al Wazir and Boris Palmer. Secondly, their party profile is clear: it is inextricably linked to the issues of environment, energy and climate change; they display competency in policy areas that will become increasingly important to our economies, societies and daily lives. At the dawn of an age in which the need for energy and food is rising alongside a growing world population, the Green Party appears intellectually prepared like no other German party. Environmental policy is increasingly seen as a synonym for problem-solving competency.

Thus, it is not enough for the SPD to stand on the sidelines, insisting that the upcoming turn in energy policy must be affordable to the guy on Main Street. As a people’s party it should develop its own vision of the future economy and society after the industrial age. This will allow the SPD to highlight the contradictory aspects in the Greens profile. The first aspect concerns the missing connection between environmental policy and social justice. The second relates to the Green Party’s equivocation over whether to propagate renunciation or the potentials of Green growth. On this second issue the SPD has a traditionally strong position in favour of new technologies and smartly run industries. Finally, there is an international dimension to the energy revolution, which has been neglected so far. For example: What is the point in switching off nuclear plants, when other European states build new ones? With its internationalist tradition, the SPD is predisposed to have a strong voice on this issue.

However, in order to prepare ourselves intellectually for the 21st century, the SPD requires honest debate and discussion. Closing its eyes to reality and communicating in Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ will only make things worse.


Die Kolumne erschien zunächst bei unserem Kooperationspartner, dem britischen Think Tank Policy Network.