Long popular in western cities, Germany’s Alliance 90/The Greens party is bumping up against a wall with voters in the ex-communist east that could cost it a chance to snatch German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position when she retires this year.
The now 40-year-old ecologist party is to gather from tomorrow for a congress to plot the course toward September’s general election after a bruising performance in Saxony-Anhalt state on Sunday.
The poor vote showing cemented an image of lost momentum for the party, which for the first time in its history is staking a claim to the chancellery.
“The Greens are still both potentially the strongest political force in the country and a small niche party, depending on the place, time and situation,” news weekly Der Spiegel said.
Despite ambitions for a double-digit result, the Greens notched up just 6 percent in the country’s poorest state — less than a point higher than their 2016 score.
“It wasn’t what we had hoped,” said Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ chancellor candidate.
“Some of our messaging on climate protection failed to cut through to the voters,” Baerbock said.
“In the east, which is still marked by the shock of reunification, potentially costly ecological measures are not a big draw for voters,” political scientist Hajo Funke told reporters.
The election handed Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) a resounding win with 37 percent of the vote, pushing the Alternative for Germany into second place with 21 percent.
The strong outcome put wind in the sails of CDU leader Armin Laschet, Baerbock’s main opponent to run Europe’s top economy after 16 years of Merkel at the helm.
The Greens, out of federal government since 2005, had been riding high at the national level, with voters telling pollsters that climate issues are their top concern, albeit by a much larger margin in the west.
A survey last month showed that Germans are hungry for change, with more than 60 percent hoping for a new government after the election.
Senior Greens say they are happy that the campaign is shaping up as a two-horse race, and that excitement about the youthful Baerbock, a mother of two small children, has endured among their energized base.
However, they say that Baerbock, who is from the west, but represents an eastern constituency outside Berlin in parliament, will have to make the Greens more than an one-issue party if they hope to win outright.
Greens coleader Robert Habeck said that the weekend election disappointment served as a wake-up call that they would need to “look beyond climate protection.”
He cited addressing a cleft between rural poverty and urban wealth, particularly in creating opportunities for young jobseekers, and expanding public transport infrastructure as sure vote-winners.
He said there would need to be “enormous political effort” to bring down carbon dioxide emissions, accompanied by “social measures” to cushion the blow to those whose jobs would be shed in an energy transition.
The party is also planning a targeted campaign for voters over the age of 60 in the east and west, arguing that “climate protection is also a policy for your grandchildren.”
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