The Conservatives' New Favorite Color

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, May 26, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Conservatives' New Favorite Color

Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International

Byline: Stefan Theil

An alliance of Germany's Christian Democrats and the Greens suggests a potentially radical political realignment.

While the future effects of global warming are still hotly debated, the one very real thaw it has already produced is between the world's environmentalists and their foes on the political right. Think John McCain's embrace of the climate-change issue, or the greening of Britain's Tories under their leader, David Cameron. The latest ice to break is between Germany's once radical, antiestablishment Green Party and their erstwhile archenemy, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). In a formerly unthinkable and possibly far-reaching realignment of German politics, conservatives and the Green Party have been entering alliances in local and regional parliaments, creating new power options for both parties--and a laboratory for breaking the logjam that has paralyzed German politics.

The latest and most significant test case of novel coalition-building has come in Hamburg, one of Germany's 16 federal states. In a replay of the national election in 2005 that brought Merkel to power at the head of an unwieldy grand coalition of CDU and Social Democrats (SPD), Hamburg's voters in February failed to give either the CDU or the SPD the needed majority to form a government. But instead of opting for another grand coalition of the two major parties--which in Berlin has led to predictable bickering and blockage--the CDU has hammered out a coalition agreement with the Greens. Together, the parties on May 7 reinstalled incumbent Hamburg Governor Ole von Beust.

The first such hookup at the state level had strong backing from Merkel, who sees it as widening the CDU's options for future coalitions, possibly at the national level. Ditto for Renate Kunast, the Greens' leader in Parliament and main strategic thinker. Even the eminence grise of Germany's archconservatives, former Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber, gave his blessing to a marriage he once said was impossible. "The Greens aren't political street urchins anymore," Stoiber said earlier this month.

To understand what a radical shift this means for both parties, it helps to flash back to the 1980s, when the Greens first appeared on the scene. The CDU was a bastion of small-town, church-going, law-and-order conservatism that had happily ignored the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. In the CDU's weltanschauung, there was little place for immigrants, gays, or even working women. The contrast to the Greens couldn't have been starker. When their deputies first won election to the Bundestag in 1983, the Greens were a hodgepodge of Maoists, street fighters and radical counterculturalists who'd vowed to overturn "the system." The established parties treated them as freaks--and no one more so than the conservatives. To the CDU establishment, the hippie-haired, sneaker-wearing Greens were "terrorists" and "forest hermits." CDU legislators pressed, unsuccessfully, to have them observed by Germany's domestic intelligence as an alleged threat to the democratic order. To many Greens, in turn, the conservatives under then Chancellor Helmut Kohl were nature-despoiling, women-oppressing, foreigner-hating capitalists--political barbarians, a virtual throwback to the Nazis.

The sudden and remarkable shift in sentiment is part cultural change, and part political expediency. Today's Greens have now come of age. The 1980s protest generation is now in its 40s and 50s, with families and mortgages. Educated and rich (Green voters have higher incomes than those of any other party), the now established Greens have also shed many of their more radical policies. Far-left members and voters bolted the party after then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, once a hard-core left street fighter, supported German military deployment in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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The Conservatives' New Favorite Color


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