Merkelism without Merkel: Green hopes high before German state vote
By Philip Oltermann* –
Pragmatic state premier with flat-top ahead in
polls as CDU faces defeat in country’s south-west
Kretschmann, a white-haired former biology teacher who has been the state premier
of Baden-Württemberg since 2011, can look forward to this Sunday’s elections in
his wealthy corner of south-west Germany with ease.
In the home state of Daimler, Porsche and Bosch, he has not
just won the support of the metal and electronics industry, but that of
conservative voters, 65% of whom have in surveys expressed their wish for the
72-year-old Catholic to retain his office.
Posters plastered all over the state showcase not only
Kretschmann’s trademark flat-top haircut but also a robust brass neck: his
campaign slogan “Sie kennen mich” (You know me) is the same folksy quip that
helped Angela Merkel
win a third term in 2013.
The only problem for Merkel’s party is that Kretschmann is
not a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but the German Greens.
Seven months before the chancellor’s 16-year stint comes to
an end with federal elections on 26 September, state votes in Baden-Württemberg
and neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate could teach the German public a
surprising lesson: that they can vote for a continuation of Merkelism not just
without Merkel, but also without the CDU.
Since winning the leadership mandate in Germany’s top export
state in 2011, Kretschmann has pursued an ambitious agenda on biodiversity
while keeping local carmakers on side with the kind of pragmatic approach
usually associated with the country’s famously consensual chancellor.
As journalist Ulrich Schulte puts it in a new book on the
ecological party, Kretschmann’s south-western Greens have managed to become
what the CDU once used to be and what the national Green party dreams of
becoming: “an indispensable political force that represents and shapes the
state like no other”.
While the latest polls in Baden-Württemberg give the Green
party a 10-point lead, his Christian Democrat coalition partners could on
Sunday not just face a historic defeat in their former stronghold, but also the
possibility of being pushed out of office in favour of a “traffic-light
coalition” between the Greens, the Social Democratic party (SPD) and the
pro-business Free Democrats.
Such a power-sharing arrangement is already in place in
Rhineland-Palatinate, once the home turf of the late reunification chancellor
Helmut Kohl but governed by centre-left premier Malu Dreyer since 2013. Here
too, the Christian Democrats could be left out in the cold as a result of their
polling lead having disappeared in the wake of kickback allegations over mask
procurement deals and a growing frustration with a sluggish vaccination rollout
overseen by CDU ministers.
For leader Armin Laschet, who has led the conservative
outfit for less than two months but hopes to take Merkel’s mantle in September,
the two state elections could provide a sobering reality check.
“The danger for Laschet is that his leadership qualities
will come into question before he has fully settled in his job”, said Thorsten
Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.
“After the votes on Sunday there will be strategic attempts
to blame the mask affair and weak candidates”, Faas said. “But one thing is
quite clear: the government’s ratings, and especially those of the CDU, only
shot up because of the pandemic – and now they are going down again”.
How low the hegemon of German postwar politics can fall
remains the great unknown. Recent polls still show the CDU as the strongest
force in the country, at roughly the same share of the vote it received in
And whether the second-placed Green party under leadership
duo Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck can simply take its place on the
national stage by copying their success story in Baden-Württemberg is
a blueprint for stealing a march on the Christian Democratic Union among the
middle-class electorate”, Schulte wrote in a recent article for ta.
“But such a cautious course of modernisation is far too slow
in the face of the escalating climate crisis; it would even fall short of an
orientation on the Paris agreement, the minimal goal of a Green coalition
Kretschmann’s consensual approach has involved compromises
that have made the more leftwing quarters of his party wince, such as a
proposal for a scrappage scheme to incentivise the purchase of new diesel and
petrol cars, designed to support automobile companies struggling during the
It has also created space for the foundation of a small new
ecological party, Klimaliste Baden-Württemberg, which will
compete for Green seats at Sunday’s vote.
Signalling too much of Kretschmann’s flexibility in the
run-up to the September vote, some Green supporters fear, could damage the
party’s standing just as they limber up to play a role in the next government.
They point a warning finger at Austria, where the Greens
entered a power-sharing deal with chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives in
2020 but have been outmuscled in a symbolic battle over the country’s asylum
policy. Instead of becoming Germany’s next indispensable political force, the
Greens could also go down in history as the conservatives’ litter-bearers.
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*Philip Oltermann is the Guardian’s Berlin
bureau chief. He is the author of Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of
Anglo-German Encounters. Click here
for Philp’s public key