German Greens conference ends in stand-off

Wednesday, May 22, 1991

For progressive politics in the advanced capitalist world, West Germany's Green Party was one of the most important developments of the 1980s. Its failure in the December 2 federal elections to elect any candidates from the West German states, along with the effects of German unification — the right's triumphalism and the left's disorientation over the collapse of Stalinism — have led to a deepening of ideological divisions that have always existed within the Greens. Green Left correspondent SALLY LOW reports below on the April 26-28 first all-German convention of the Greens in Neumünster, north of Hamburg, and interviews three key participants.

Factional struggles prior to the convention had foreshadowed a showdown between those who want an ecologically oriented traditional parliamentary party and those who see the Greens as something more radical — a grassroots democratic party of the environmental and peace movements. The result, however, despite a spectacular walkout by the Fundi (fundamentalist) faction, was not as clear-cut as anticipated.

First impressions, after a 15-hour trip from Prague where organised progressive politics is only starting to reform, were that this was something big, inclusive and democratic. There was seating for about 3000 people, and the hall did not look empty the whole weekend. Bookstalls lined the walls and filled the foyer that doubled as smoking room and restaurant.

Tension was high as the 680 delegates, most between the ages of 25 and 40, found their places. The presidium (equal numbers of women and men) took their seats on the stage — surrounded by flowering pot plants and backed by a giant banner that proclaimed the Greens' four principles of ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence — and, without too much formality, the show began.

Journalists from the commercial media constantly stalked the room. It was easy to tell when one of the party's celebrities arrived, because she or he would immediately be surrounded by flashing cameras and television lights. The names and faces of several such individuals could also be found adorning the covers of books on particular stalls. It seems a book in your own name has become one of the prerequisites for Green Party star status.

After the December elections, most factions of the party had called for more or less far-reaching changes in policies and organisation. The two strongest factions, the parliamentarist Realos and Left Forum, both advocated a more efficient structure but differed greatly over the extent of such changes. Realos and the smaller right-wing faction New Directions (Aufbruch) campaigned to turn the Greens into what they call a normal, disciplined party under the control of parliamentary representatives.

At a joint press conference one week before the convention, the Realos and New Direction announced their slate of three candidates for the powerful positions of party spokespeople: New Direction leader Antje Vollmer, Hubert Kleinert, a Realo, and East German Green MP Vera Wollenberger, a New Direction sympathiser. They declared that moving was the only way to regain and increase what for them is most important — electoral success. They hinted they would not accept a factional mix among the speakers: it had to be their slate or nothing.

This attempt to pre-empt convention decisions and the thinly veiled threat to split the party were typical of tactics used by Realo/New Directions factionalists at several state conventions before the federal gathering. At the state level they had been successful and so expected a sweeping victory in Neumünster.

With this lead-up, questions of policy and current political issues were almost completely ignored in favour of debates around constitutional issues and elections. On the first evening, however, the convention passed resolutions commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and opposing the government's attempt to amend the country's constitution to allow deployment of German troops outside NATO territory. A speaker from the Iraqi Kurdistan Front also gave greetings.

Next came a very long discussion on a general statement of policy. A centre-left paper sponsored by the Left Forum and a centre-right paper sponsored by the Realos both had about 50% support. Left Forum's Ludger Volmer and the Realos' Fritz Kuhn, the main authors of the papers, agreed to draft a compromise statement, which became known as the "Political Declaration of Neumünster".

Some supporters of Left Forum felt it would have been better to have a decisive vote between the two documents, but Volmer claimed the compromise had retained the most important elements of the left's original statement. Significantly, he pointed out, it specifically referred to the Greens as a left-wing party.

A highlight of that first evening was a stirring speech by Jutta Ditforth, prominent leader of the Fundis and former party spokesperson. While many delegates disagreed with her politics, they were clearly moved by her plea that the Greens must return to their origins as a grassroots party with close links to the mass movements. The Fundis did not have many delegates at the conventions but when, on the final day, Ditforth declared on their behalf that "this is no longer our party", she received a loud and sympathetic ovation, and some delegates had tears in their eyes.

Several participants told me that most delegates do not ally with any one faction and are often persuaded by ideas expressed on the floor of the convention. And although it was an intense political struggle, this did appear to be a very democratic affair. Rank-and-file delegates determined the outcome of every issue — with often unexpected results. Some members of Left Forum felt, therefore, that the Fundi walkout was ill timed. Ditforth's first speech, they said, had helped to defeat some of the more extreme demands of the right, so she should stay in the party and keep fighting.

One moral blow to the right must have been the loud applause given Hans-Christian Strobele, whose resignation as party speaker they had demanded after his comment during the Gulf War that Iraqi attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa were the result of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Day two of the convention was devoted to constitution, structure and finances. Many important elements of the Greens' structures were scrapped: rotation in the party executive and parliamentary groups was abolished, the federal executive was reduced from 13 to nine members and its three speakers were reduced to two.

(The right had campaigned hard for only two speakers, who would be Vollmer and Kleinert, but they did an embarrassing about-face just before the conference when they realised that it would be necessary to have one speaker from the former GDR. They then supported maintaining three speakers, but they failed to achieve another rule change that would have made their chosen candidate from the east eligible. Delegates voted to reduce the number to two.)

A new Council of States (Lõnderrat) representing the state executive committees replaced the former committee of state delegates. For the first time, parliamentary groups were given an institutionalised presence in party committees, thus weakening the separation between party and parliamentary offices. For the Fundis and some in Left Forum, these changes were important defeats. However, they were supported by enough non-aligned and left-leaning delegates to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional changes.

Not so with the proposal to directly abolish separation of power between elected representatives and party executive positions. This had always been a problem for the Realos because their leaders had mostly preferred more lucrative parliamentary and state government jobs, thus leaving them in a minority on the federal executive.

Indicative votes showed a clear majority in favour of the status quo, but the right had staked a lot on getting this change through and persisted until well into the night. Although the eastern Greens are generally considered conservative and courted hard by the likes of Antje Vollmer, most of their 60 delegates strongly opposed the concept of professional politicians holding executive positions within the party.

Again Left Forum sought a compromise and agreed to allow one-third of the federal executive members to stand for parliament but not the party speakers, the treasurer or the political manager. Still dissatisfied, the right demanded that one-third of the whole executive be eligible. Although it was by then after 11.30 p.m., the right demanded and was granted a 30-minute break for factional meetings.

Most Left Forum members thought it was time to stop compromising. But one prominent sympathiser of the left proposed that any two executive members could hold elected office. This time the right were just nine votes short of their two-thirds majority, and pandemonium broke out on the floor of the convention.

Prominent Realos jumped to their feet and declared that now it would be open warfare in the party. Leading Realo Hubert Kleinert forgot about the convention delegates and started to hold an impromptu press conference. Even before the vote had been taken, two Fundis fired water pistols at Realo delegates, who responded by emptying beer bottles over Fundis' heads. Fundis stormed the presidium and continued to speak through megaphones after the microphone was switched off. An observer at the convention, the first secretary of the Soviet embassy, is said to have commented, "Here it's like in the Supreme Soviet

Sunday, the final day of the convention, started with an air of uncertainty as to what would happen. However, delegates proceeded relatively peacefully to elect a new executive committee. Henry Selzer, Realo sympathiser from Saarbrücken, was elected treasurer but raised many eyebrows when he announced that he had to leave immediately for a three-week business trip abroad.

Then came the much-awaited elections for the two party spokespeople. For the first position, only women were allowed to run. Despite a last-minute move by Realos from the east to change the previous day's decision that one of the speakers must be from the east, Christine Weiske, the only eligible candidate from the former GDR and supported by the left, won with 344 votes against Antje Vollmer (263 votes) and Petra Kelly with only 39 votes. For Vollmer and her New Directions faction, this defeat was unexpected and humiliating.

Many expected a Realo or a centre-right candidate to be elected as the other spokesperson so the factions would be balanced. Cheers, mixed with cries of despair and disbelief, rocked the hall when it was announced that in the second round Left Forum's Ludger Volmer had won with 329 votes against 290 for the Realos' Hubert Kleinert.

Perhaps strangely, the Fundis, having announced their intention to quit the party, chose this moment to storm the stage and unfurl a banner that read "Welcome the new green man — capitalist, hierarchical, statist".

On this note, the convention ended. On the surface it appeared that nothing had been resolved. The stand-off between the factions had been maintained — or had it? The right was denied the sweeping victory it had expected, and two left-supported candidates hold the most important executive positions. But they face the daunting task of trying to maintain a left course in a Green Party without the radical Fundi wing and in which the Realo and New Directions factions have strong influence in state parties.

At a press conference the following day, Ludger Volmer and Christine Weiske expressed willingness to cooperate with everybody in the party, particularly those who support the Political Declaration of Neumünster. Theoretically this excludes the New Directions group, but it seems unlikely it will quit the party or take a back-seat role in favour of a hypothetical Left-Realo alliance.

"I can promise that we will try to work on the basis of the new consensus which we achieved at this meeting", Volmer told me at the end of the conference. He faces a difficult task.

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