Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Restarting Red-Green relations

The best prospects of an SPD-Green Party coalition in Germany lie in resetting a flawed campaign strategy and focusing on maximising voter potential.

In Germany, government majorities in the states (“Länder”) have often been harbingers for federal election results. For instance, before Gerhard Schröder´s landslide victory in 1998, the German social democrats (SPD) had already conquered most Länder governments.

According to this principle, the prospects look good for the SPD and the Green party to build a coalition after September 22nd, superseding Angela Merkel´s conservative-liberal coalition (CDU/CSU and FDP). Right now, SPD and Greens form governing coalitions in 6 out of 16 states, including the biggest land of North Rhine-Westphalia. In 4 additional states, social democrats sit as minister-presidents. Meanwhile, conservative-liberal coalitions are an endangered species: if polls materialise in the upcoming elections in Hesse and Bavaria, only one coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP will be left in the state of Saxony.

While the situation in the Länder suggests the dawn of a new red-green era, five months before the elections, this dynamic still does not transfer to the national level. If the election was today, pollsters say the SPD and the Green party would add up to only 40 per cent of the votes – as much as Merkel´s CDU/CSU party is polling on its own as things stand.

There are various reasons for this, most obviously the mismatch between the personal popularity of Chancellor Merkel and a weak SPD, who have so far run an election campaign which has been severely flawed.  However, another significant problem lies in the relationship between the SPD and the Green party itself. Officially, both parties have announced that they will strive to form a red-green government after the elections. This is with good reason. Most social democratic and green voters prefer a red-green coalition to every other option. Yet instead of embodying the desire to change the country together, red-green relations are characterised by enviousness and competition and this has a demobilising effect on the left camp.

Take for example the latest teasing between the party leaders Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) and Jürgen Trittin (Green party) in March. When the SPD was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the red-green Agenda 2010 reforms, Trittin suddenly claimed that the Green party had always been against tough sanctions for the reluctant unemployed and for a minimum wage. His assertion was not only incorrect, it was clearly meant to provoke.

Sigmar Gabriel is not the kind of guy who runs away from a good little fight. “The Greens will never understand what a shop assistant at Aldi thinks”, he said. “Greens will never understand, that it is also an achievement, if there are cheap flights to Mallorca, because then even a journeyman can afford the holiday.” Later, Gabriel warned the Greens could form a coalition with the conservatives.

This hassle is emblematic. On the one hand, Gabriel’s arrogance is that of a large party looking down on a smaller one. His words are reminiscent of Gerhard Schröders famous phrase: “In a red-green coalition it has got to be clear: The bigger one is the cook, the smaller one is the waiter.”

On the other hand, the Greens are no innocent lambs either. In recent years, they have become increasingly self-confident. After the SPD entered the grand coalition from 2005 to 2009, the Green party followed a strategy of greater independence and became more emancipated from the social democrats. Ever since then, they have been doing well in the polls, hitting an all-time high of 24 per cent in 2011, which has since leveled off between 13 and 15 per cent. In the third biggest state of Baden-Württemberg, they made history by putting forward the first green minister-president. The electoral success led to feelings of superiority towards the SPD among many greens. “They regard themselves as smarter, more disciplined, and as better campaigners anyway”, writes Christoph Hickmann of the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

However, there is no reason for being presumptuous, as the clutter before their recent party convention shows; the party leadership had to cope with 2600 amendments to the draft for the election manifesto. Much to the anger of social democrats, the final document represented an attempt by the Greens to overtake the SPD on the left flank, for example with regard to pensions for low earners, relaxing sanctions for the unemployed and establishing a wealth tax or increasing the top tax rate.

The Greens are the party of the value-orientated upper class. No other party has as little support among the middle and lower thirds of society than the Greens. In order to maximise the red-green voter potential, it should be the task of the Greens to reach out to new voters among the performance-orientated electorate at the top or in the middle third of society – instead of poaching voters from SPD territory and trying to gain at the expense of their potential partner. The bias of the Green manifesto may satisfy post-materialist party members, but strategically, it is not very clever.
At the same time, it is important to note that the SPD is also not fulfilling its potential, for example with regard to undecided voters or voters who have abstained in the past. A red-green coalition will only be possible if both partners manage to mobilise their clientele maximally. This requires a division of tasks with regard to different voter groups, which also means not being afraid to stress policy differences – but as a form of friendly competition, without constructing negative images of the other party.
What is striking in this context is the lack of systematic exchange between leading social democrats and greens at the national level. Lately, thinktanks like Das Progressive Zentrum or Denkwerk Demokratie have tried to fill in this gap, offering spaces for policy discussions between both sides. The debates reveal that while social democrats and Greens, of course, have different opinions with regard to growth and environmental issues, in many other policy areas differences are marginal. In addition to that, red-green governments in the Länder show that social democrats and Greens can work together successfully.

Both parties still have five months to convince the public of the red-green project. Will they get their act together? Recently, for the first time a Green party leader spoke at a party convention of the SPD. Shortly after Sigmar Gabriel held a speech at the Green convention which was likewise a novelty. Both speeches were well received by the public. It remains to be seen if this can be construed as the restarting of red-green relations.


This article was published by our partner institution policy network as contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network’s monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics.

Michael Miebach is vice chairman of Das Progressive Zentrum.