Can the German Greens make a comeback?

April 10, 1991

By Tracy Sorensen

Die Grünen, West Germany's green party (and now the name of the united east-west party), has been written off as a political force many times. Yet despite being riven by factional disputes and rising and falling electoral fortunes, the party has so far managed to stay together and be a continuing pole of attraction for alternative politics.

But since its devastating electoral defeat on December 11, when Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats won in a unification-inspired landslide, a large question mark hangs over the party.

The western Greens lost all 48 of their parliamentary seats; their eastern counterparts won just two of the eight seats taken by the Green-Citizens' Initiative ticket.

In the wake of the defeat, bitter factional struggles have opened up, while members of the former eastern party complain that they — in common with most other East German parties, enterprises and institutions — have been "taken over" by their numerically stronger western counterparts.

On the other hand, a strong role in the recent movement to stop the war in the Gulf may have had a rejuvenating effect: the party's invitation to soldiers to desert and its strong presence in marches and demonstrations may have brought it back into the thick of the grassroots movement into which it was born in the early '80s.

Whether this is the case will be seen over the coming months, and particularly at a major congress to be held in Munster this month.

Why the December 11 rout? The answer generally given is that the Greens, who stood for a slower, more just bringing together of the two Germanies, lost out in the overwhelming sentiment for unification.

But most commentators within the Green Party point to deeper, more long-term problems. An analysis of the defeat written by Bonn-based federal executive member Jurgen Maier outlines the various positions.

New Direction group

On the far right of the party (even further to the right than the "Realo" faction) stands the New Direction 1988 group, which calls for the creation of a new green party based on what Maier calls a "clear eco-liberal, anti-left basis, formed out of parts of Die Grünen and parts of the east German citizens' movement".

At one point last year, members of this group even began to make noises about a united Germany's "global responsibilities" — such as policing the Persian Gulf.

Prominent Realo Joschka Fischer and New Direction member Antje Vollmer called at a December 4 press conference for the end of "basocratic structures". "We have to get rid of ... obstacles such as rotation, having no party president, and preventing MPs from being members of the party executive. The Greens must accept the structures of a normal party and accept that politics is impossible without prominent personalities.

"If the Greens do not become a professional party that actively seeks governmental power and definitely renounces all forms of fundamentalism, it will perish."

Left Forum

The Left Forum group, of which Jurgen Maier is a member, agrees with some elements of this reasoning. A week after the Fischer-Vollmer press conference, Left Forum announced that it agreed that the party's structures have to be streamlined. The principle of rotation, for example, should be scrapped because it had failed to "produce a constant stream of new qualified politicians".

Left Forum opposed the creation of a party president, not on principle, but "for lack of a suitable prominent person who really could represent the whole of the party instead of just one faction".

Left Forum has pointed out that the main problem lies not in structure but in the need to "finally establish the party's character as a progressive, ecological and social party". Maier holds that the New Direction 1988 group's positions are incompatible with the Greens' objectives, and that it ought to be removed from the party.

Meanwhile, "fundamentalist" and former federal executive spokesperson Jutta Ditfurth holds that the party has distanced itself from the social movements: "Fischer and Vollmer are the grave diggers of the green project. The call for structural reforms is ridiculous and would transform the party into a bourgeois irrelevant party."

There can be no doubt that the party has shifted to the right over the past few years, as fundamentalists and socialists — including key founders of the Greens in the early '80s — have either left or been thrown out.

Some of these have found their way into a non-parliamentary coalition called the Radical Left; others have joined forces with the Party of Democratic Socialism — the reformed SED, which ruled East Germany before the wall came down in November 1989.

One recent victim of the rightward shift was party spokesperson Hans-Christian Strobele, who commented during the Gulf War that the Iraqi attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa were the end result of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. When the mainstream media worked itself into a lather over this, the Greens' response was to remove him from his post.

According to former executive member of the East German Greens, Ricardo Korf, Strobele's removal is a foretaste of what might be in store at the coming party congress.

Korf, who is associated with Left Forum in the united party, is in Australia for six months working with the Rainforest Information SW.

Leaders and grassroots

In an interview he and RIC coordinator Gabrielle Luft gave Green Left, he said that while a lot of activists would continue to give up and pull out, Left Forum was committed to fighting to be heard within the party.

"Our advantage is that we have a really good relationship with the peace movement, which is stronger than ever after the Gulf War, as well as good contacts with the European and international alternative movements. The conservatives tend to be more focussed on national questions, less interested in such contacts."

After the next congress, says Korf, "there will be a new structure, a new inner party dictatorship". Grassroots participation will be eroded in favour of "looking to your leader to see what he says. It's not correct. It's the same as a conservative party, like the Nationals here or the Social Democrats of Germany."

Korf says that he "can't understand" the Green Party conservatives' blocking of work with the PDS.

"We have found that there's a reformation of that party. I've seen it at its base. I can work with the PDS very well sometimes. Okay, it has a bad past, but there are some elements in this party that you can learn from.

"There are a lot of intelligent and competent people in it, and we as a green left and they as a socialist left can compare with each other, we can work together. But the conservative part has prohibited this joint work."

Korf and others doubtful about the party's current direction are determined to stick it out: "The only chance for the Green Party to survive at all is to somehow keep it together and make the 5% barrier in the next elections". Abandoning the party altogether would have "dire consequences for environmental and social issues".

The Greens still have, according to Jurgen Maier, a reasonably strong base: "... about 45,000 members in the united Germany, many parliamentary groups in the states and in municipal and county councils, coalition governments with the SPD in the state of Lower Saxony and in many cities, including Munich and Frankfurt, and a group in the European Parliament".

The party's real test, he says, will come in 1994, with European elections in June and federal elections in October.

"This will demonstrate whether in politics it is the same as in sports: 'They never come back'. Perhaps they do."n

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