German Election 2021

From traffic lights to Jamaican paradise – What are the Greens looking for after the elections?

With six months to spare until federal elections in September, their outcome remains in the dark. However, the Green party’s participation in the next federal government coalition is becoming increasingly clear. In this regard, the experiences made on state level in recent years could prove insightful, as currently no less than eleven state governments include the Greens. Hence, the outcome of upcoming state elections in Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate – both co-governed by the Greens – will be an early indicator for the viability of a “Green coalition” also on federal level. Notwithstanding their possible regional success, any such coalition requires significant compromise on all sides. However, with the adoption of their novel party manifesto asserting their pragmatism and new party leaders open to political compromise, the Greens have accepted compromises as a necessary requirement for a position in power.

More than half a year ahead of election day, with most parties neither having nominated a candidate for chancellorship nor adopted an election program, it is already clear that this year’s federal election will see a significant reshuffling of political constellations in Berlin. This is not only due to the retirement of Angela Merkel as well as a second renewal of the ruling Grand Coalition (CDU-SPD) being off the table. Also, with the Green party’s ongoing high in polls, forming a future governing coalition without Green participation currently appears virtually impossible.

Indeed, with the state elections in Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate taking place on 14 March, the first balloting exercise in Germany’s super election year, voters will get a chance to judge the Greens’ performance in government. In 2016, Baden-Wurttemberg became the first state in Germany to be led by a Green state-premier with a Green-Conservative (Greens-CDU, “Green-Black”) coalition, while Rhineland-Palatinate is headed by a so-called “traffic light coalition” made up of Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Liberals (FDP). As both, a Black-Green coalition as well as a traffic light coalition are traded as potential options for a new federal government coalition, the state elections’ outcomes are closely followed and evaluated in terms of their implications for the September federal elections and ensuing coalition negotiations by parties and analysts alike.

A play of colors – Tricky coalition-building after the 2021 elections

Yet, the path towards Green participation in a government coalition includes a host of different party constellations. Considering that coalitions with right-wing populist AfD have been categorically excluded by all parties and an inclusion of the Left party (Die Linke) in a federal coalition also appears unlikely at this point, no less than four parties contend in the race for government participation: the center-right CDU, the center-left SPD, the Green party as well as the liberal FDP. In view of current polls[1], the picture is further complicated by the fact that traditional camps such as a Conservative-Liberal or left-leaning coalition will likely not dominate a parliamentary majority. It is precisely this situation that has already led to two Grand Coalitions over the past eight years, which neither party now wants to continue.

At federal level, the time has thus now become ripe for a coalition that overcomes traditional blocs. Such a non-traditional coalition also offers opportunities for the parties involved: previous similar constellations have shown that it is advantageous and has a stabilizing effect if the coalition partners do not have to court the same voter groups. Nevertheless, as quite significant programmatic and ideological differences particularly between the Greens on the one hand and conservatives and liberals on the other hand persist, each potential coalition will, from the outset, face its own challenges.

A Conservative-Green coalition – Still a pipe dream?

When in 2011 Angela Merkel called a Conservative-Green coalition a fantasy due to precisely these programmatic differences, little did she know that ten years later it would be considered as one of the most viable options in the first elections following her 16-year long tenure. Initial enthusiasm for this option has however been recently dampened by negative experiences on state level, as the ruling Green-Black coalition in Baden-Wurttemberg has exposed tensions and frustrations between the two camps, despite the fact that the state’s regional chapter of the Greens is widely considered to be more conservative. This led Green party Chairman Robert Habeck to conclude that both parties are “very different”.

Additionally, both parties will encounter challenges in maintaining internal cohesion if entering a coalition. On the one hand, the Greens were recently strongly attacked in the state of Hesse – where they serve as junior coalition partner to the CDU – as they accepted deforestation for a highway expansion, clashing with their bases among environmentalists. On the other hand, the surprisingly close race for CDU chairmanship made plain the CDU’s internal divisions (see our previous blog post). The Conservatives will thus have to ensure to not alienate the more conservative Merz-supporters, who are more opposed to a Black-Green coalition.

A second chance for Jamaica?

A pertinent compromise for the CDU may thus be a “Jamaica coalition” including the CDU, Greens and Liberals. This option had already been on the table following the last federal elections in 2017, but eventually fell through after the FDP pulled away from the negotiation table. Following the fallout of the last federal Jamaica coalition talks, scepticism particularly among the Greens remains high. Yet, the FDP would lose too much credibility should it deny itself to this option once more, increasing the chances of success this time around. Furthermore, positive experiences with a Jamaica coalition in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, decisively contrived by Green Chairman and potential chancellor candidate Habeck, have shown that the once unlikely union between CDU, Greens and Liberals is able to work together constructively, despite significant political differences and need for compromise.

Turning the traffic light Green?

Though according to current polls falling short of a parliamentary majority, a traffic light coalition between Greens, SPD and Liberals appears to be the only option through which the Greens would be able to take the Federal Chancellery. In Rhineland-Palatinate, this type of coalition has fared well without major conflict and seeks to renew its mandate, while the option is also seriously considered in Baden-Wurttemberg in view of the difficulties experienced in the ruling Green-Black coalition. The outcomes of and coalition talks following these two state elections are thus an important indicator whether the lights could also “turn Green” for this constellation on federal level.

A modern Green party: no longer hugging trees 

Yet, the question remains: Are the Greens prepared to partner up with Germany’s conservative or liberal forces to secure government participation, despite what from the outset appears to be almost irreconcilable ideological differences? Though the party’s election program is yet to be adopted, their newly updated party manifesto clearly signals that the Greens stand ready to enter compromise.

Due to the pressure of both, left-leaning Fridays-for-Future activists and more conservative pragmatists inside the party, the new manifesto became a document of compromises between the wish for radical ecological and social change and the necessity to find political majorities to enact any such change, with the latter undoubtedly prevailing. While the Greens still clearly position themselves as a modern left-leaning party, for example with proposing to reform the social services and tax system as well as promoting the role of the European Union, they nevertheless refrained from following more drastic demands by some in- and outside the party. Thus, in the manifesto, the party commits to (green) economic growth, an (ecological) market-based economy, and (fair) free trade. Overall, the Greens are able and willing to compromise on core issues if it provides them with a perspective to tap into new groups of potential voters and new possible coalitions beyond the desired left-wing alliance. The party seemingly aspires to be what the Baden-Wurttemberg Greens have already achieved: pragmatic and powerful.

These new party positions are also entirely in line with the new strategic orientation the Green party chairs, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. During the party convention, both advocated against direct democracy on federal level, against a universal basic income, and even against an all too clear commitment to the Paris agreement’s 1.5-degree goal. Indeed, the two chairs seem cautious not to repeat the mistakes of past election campaigns where restrictions on meat consumption and a wealth tax alienated potential voters. Even more, Baerbock and Habeck, themselves relative newcomers in the party leadership, represent a newly found confidence to govern. Both have stated that they could not only see themselves as part of a government but also as chancellor.

Prepared for a second attempt at governing

More than 20 years after their first attempt to (co-)govern on national level as a junior coalition partner to the SPD (1998-2005), due to their now extensive experience in state governments as well as the assertive leadership of the party’s more pragmatic wing, the Green party has developed into a defining political force without which a future governing coalition will hardly be able to come by. Notwithstanding, coalition-building after this year’s election will not be an easy task and compromise will be necessary on all sides involved. At the same time, it remains highly contingent on a number of factors – such as parties’ nominations of chancellorship candidates or the adoption of election programs. Time will tell how the Greens will put their newly gained influence to use.

Next milestones:

  • April 2021: CDU/CSU decision on chancellor candidate
  • April/May 2021: The Greens decision on chancellor candidate
  • 9 May 2021: Party Congress SPD
  • 14-16 May 2021: Party Congress FDP


[1] Current polls: CDU/CSU: 35%; SPD: 16%; Greens: 19%; FDP: 7%; Die Linke: 8%; AfD: 8%; others: 7%. Source:; last accessed 17 February 2021.


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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