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From Environmental Movement to Government Party – The Greens on the way to shape the country’s future

The German Green party has evolved quite significantly since it was founded in 1980. The change has taken place over multiple decades and with quite some controversy over the course of the party’s history. The Greens did not emerge as a spin-off or new formation of existing parties, but rather as a result of grassroot and social movements, such as anti-nuclear groups, the peace movement, women’s initiatives and the student movement. “Ecological, grassroots, social, non-violent” was the motto under which delegates met in Karlsruhe to establish the Greens on January 13th, 1980. Following the party’s founding, the 1980s were marked by the inner-party confrontation between real-political (Realos) and fundamentalist forces (Fundis). The rift prevented the party from campaigning effectively and thus, the mission to gain seats in the Bundestag in 1980 failed spectacularly. When all votes were counted, the Greens received 1.5% of the electoral vote – 3.5% below the needed the five-percent hurdle.

After the early Bundestag elections on March 6th, 1983, the Greens were able to secure seats in parliament for the first time with 5.6%. Following the election, they continued to attract national attention not only due to their show of colourful knit sweaters in a very traditional environment but also due to their provocative political style and strong criticism of the status quo. The foundation of their success was built on the growing environmental movement and the resistance against nuclear power, harnessed by the fundamentalist wing of the party.

The “realo” wing was not able to assert itself until after German reunification in April 1991. Retrospectively, this period became a turning point for the Green party when an association treaty known as the “basic consensus” with the east-German Alliance 90 was reached in 1993. As a result, the Greens distanced themselves from their system-critical stance and unreservedly recognized the functional principles of parliamentary democracy. With representatives of the less doctrinaire Alliance 90, the party was able to build a red-green-coalition in 1998 under chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD).

The first period of this red-green federal government was marked by the NATO forces intervention in the Kosovo war and the non-war participation in the Iraq conflict which all touched on essential cornerstones of the party’s self-image and was considered as a decisive cut for the Greens. While the “fundi” stand of the party did not legitimize the intervention, foreign minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens canvassed his party’s support for the NATO mission on their political convention 1999 in Bielefeld. In protest against this decision, Joschka Fischer was pelted with a red paint bag from his own ranks, which went down in history as the “famous paint attack”.  In addition, the party’s own discord flared up again due to the ambiguous position of the Greens on the participation of the Bundeswehr in the Iraq conflict. Based on greens votes, the federal government refused to take part in the war on the side of the United States. It was not until the basic program “The Future is Green” adopted in March 2002 that an inner-party calm emerged. With 90 % approval, the Greens adapted their program to government reality by ending the strict pacifism of earlier years and by no longer categorically ruling out military commitment.

Is the transformation about to be completed?

Nowadays, the intense rivalry of the two wings has been largely pacified. While the two schools of thought remain present in the party, conflicts are carried out less publicly. Instead, the party has found ways to work together, for example by sharing leadership positions between both wings until recently. While other parties are tearing themselves apart, from the outside the Greens appear more unified than ever and are tipped to become part of the next government in some form. Seemingly, the party has learned the lessons from the past.

The Greens have also long evolved from a party of rebels to a party of liberal city-elites and have begun to gain a broader base. Although the recent influx of young voters, particularly those involved in Fridays for Future has changed the equation a bit in favour of the left wing of the party, it’s not entirely clear that the students are unilaterally supporting the Greens. Seemingly, the party is able to make use of the momentum because it is associated with climate policy. Yet, the party is aiming for a broader appeal under the guidance of the Realo-wing. The new party program, which formulates positions on issues previously ignored, is the best indicator, that the Greens are moving away from being a niche party to becoming a people’s party.

However, completing that transformation requires compromises, which have attracted criticism from the fundamentalist camp, and have caused parts of the traditional supporters like progressive and ecological groups to threaten to turn their back on them. At the same time, particularly the CDU/CSU is feeling threatened that a Green party with a broader appeal can cut into their base. Thus, the conservatives use every opportunity they get to paint the Greens as left-wing extremists and label them as a so-called “Verbotspartei” (prohibition party). Despite the pushback from both sides, the party has formulated new ambitions under the leadership duo consisting of Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck to unite society and to define common goals. The party no longer sees itself in the role of a rather left-wing vanguard that must act from a minority position. On the contrary, the party is currently represented in 11 state governments, takes second place behind CDU/CSU with 21% in recent polls and has repeatedly underlined its claim to power.[1]

Going forward, the party leadership now faces a difficult task of maintaining the current balance. On the one hand, they must continue the current path to build a broad coalition and be electable for the bourgeois camp and, above all, attract Merkel voters. On the other hand, the Realo wing, which is seemingly in charge must maintain the peace with the fundamentalist wing to satisfy their traditional base and must work hard to maintain the support of activists like Fridays for Future.

The Green’s outlook into an unpredictable future

After the Greens achieved a historic result in the state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and recorded a strong plus in Rhineland-Palatinate, they now must decide on a candidate for chancellor for the first time in their history. A traffic light coalition between the Greens, SPD and Liberals is the only realistic option that would allow the Greens to take over the chancellorship (see our previous blog post).The coming months will therefore determine whether the party will shape the future of the country.

[1] Current polls: CDU/CSU: 29%; SPD: 16%; Greens: 21%; FDP: 8%; Die Linke: 8%; AfD: 10%; others: 8%. Source:; last accessed 17.03.2021 – forsa .


The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

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