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Maybe It’s Easier to Be Green in 2019

Updated: Oct 12, 2019

By Jae-Jae Spoon

On this side of the pond, the story out of Europe is largely one of increasing support for right-wing nationalist parties. However, another story that is of equal importance is how green parties, once scrappy disorganized minor parties, are making major gains across Europe.

Statement by Ska Keller, Green Party Candidate / Source: European Parliament

Three recent examples illustrate this. First, in the Sept. 29th snap elections in Austria, the Greens won 13.8% of the vote—10% more than they won in in the previous election in 2017—and were returned to parliament for the first time since 2013 with 26 seats (of 183). Second, in Bavaria—one of the most conservative states in Germany—the Greens came in second with 17.5% of the vote in the 2018 state elections, winning 7.8% of the vote more than the Social Democrats, the major left-wing party. And third, in the elections to the European Parliament held in the 28 Member States of the European Union last May, green parties increased their seat share considerably, winning nearly 10% of the vote across the EU. Given that the nationalist parties were fragmented and did not all run in one party group, this boosted considerably the influence green parties will have in the current parliament.

Why is this happening?

First, although they have served in governments across Europe over the past 30 years, green parties have largely been in the opposition. As my research with Heike Klüver has demonstrated, parties in the opposition have more flexibility. They can be more responsive to citizens’ concerns and change their positions more easily without being accused of flip-flopping on the issues—a concern of parties which are in government.

Further, we have found that by choosing to not enter into governing coalitions as the junior partner, the greens may do better electorally in the next election. In fact, opposition parties gain an average of 3% more votes than junior coalition partners in the next election. Governing as a junior partner makes it harder for a party to enact what it promised in the election campaign and differentiate itself from the prime minister’s party. It also blurs the lines of responsibility within in the government, thereby making it more challenging for voters to distinguish between the parties—thus giving voters no reason to vote for the less-powerful junior partner in the next election.

Second, green parties have changed. At their founding, the greens declared themselves to be “neither left, nor right, but ahead”, with a goal of doing politics differently—which included their organization, leadership, and issue focus. The image of Joschka Fischer, who was among the first Greens elected to the German Bundestag in 1983, speaking on the floor of parliament in a jean jacket and tennis shoes exemplified this different approach to post-war politics.

Flash forward forty years, and these parties are now part of the establishment. They have become savvy, strategic political actors. Green parties have representation in state, national and the European parliaments and although they have largely remained in the opposition, they have been part of governments in several countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, where even as junior partners, they have been able to make some important progress on their core issues as well as demonstrating their governing abilities. Fischer served as the Foreign Minister from 1998-2005.

In government, the greens have typically worked alongside the major left-wing parties. Although less common, they have also governed with right-wing parties (the German state of Hesse is one such example).

In addition, Chris Williams and I have shown that the greens will expand the set of issues on which they focus to include more economic issues when radical left parties are not electorally successful and unemployment is high.

Third, climate change has become a major issue. We don’t have to look far to see that climate change has become a salient issue—from the US Democratic presidential debates, to the German government’s ambitious €54 billion (~$59 billion) proposal to combat climate change, the UN Climate Action Summit, and the FridaysforFuture strikes led by Greta Thunberg.

In a June 2019 Eurobarometer poll, 22% of Europeans responded that climate change is one of the two most important issues facing the EU and 13% responded that it is the environment—a significant increase for both issues from the previous year.

The environment has been the issue the greens owned from their founding. Even more than owning the issue, they are the parties that voters associate with the issue of the environment. As the issue has become more salient to voters, they are turning to the parties that have the strongest voice on the issue and which are responding to voters’ concerns. A recent voting intention poll in Germany, for example, has the Greens tied with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats at 27%, which is 14 percentage points above the Social Democrats.

Why does this matter?

As the greens are becoming a major player in some European countries, we will see the political landscape continue to change.

Many of the voters who are increasingly turning away from the major left-wing parties are turning to the greens. In the recent Austrian election, for example, an estimated 220,000 former Social Democratic voters switched to the Greens.

On the one hand, this may mean that the greens could become the major left-wing party in several European countries, replacing the social democratic parties, especially as the climate issue continues to remain a top issue for voters.

On the other hand, it could also mean that governments become harder to form as left-wing voters are divided among several parties, leaving no left party with enough seats to govern on its own or with just one other partner.

Either way, we can’t ignore the influence green parties are having on European politics today.

Jae-Jae Spoon is professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow her on Twitter @JaeJaeSpoon.

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