Academic journal article Harvard International Review

It's Not Easy Being Green: Green Parties: From Protest to Power. (Environment)

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

It's Not Easy Being Green: Green Parties: From Protest to Power. (Environment)

Article excerpt

A decade ago, it appeared that Green parties might fade as quickly as they had bloomed. Now, how ever, Green parties appear to have become fixtures in the party systems of most Western democracies, and the Greens participate in coalition governments at the national level in Germany, France, Belgium, and Finland, as well as at the regional and local level in most European states. The green challenge has entered a new phase.

The rise of the Greens as a political force was sustained by the unprecedented increase in concern for the environment. Environmentalism has been seen as one enduring manifestation of the "post-materialist" revolution in values that swept the Western world in the wake of increased affluence, participation in higher education, and relative geopolitical stability. However, to see environmentalism solely in this light is to ignore the extent to which, especially for the world's poor, environmental issues are often fundamentally materialist issues of physical survival, safety, and sustenance. Partly for that reason, the level of environmental concern in a country has not been a particularly good predictor of electoral support for its Green party.

The Greens have polled poorly in such places as southern and eastern Europe, where the understanding of global environmental issues is low, environmental concerns principally take the form of personal complaints about pollution and its impact on health, and environmental organizations are weak. But nor have the Greens been successful in all countries where global environmental awareness is most widespread and environmental movement organizations are especially strong. Environmental awareness may have been a precondition for the rise of Green parties, but the prevailing electoral systems and the conditions of political competition determine whether potential is translated into votes.


The Greens have been most successful under conditions of proportional representation. By contrast, the majoritarian electoral systems of the United States and Britain have been especially inhospitable to them. Even when the British Greens won almost 15 percent of the national vote in the European election in 1989, they did not win a single seat in parliament. In such systems, a vote for the Greens appears to be a "wasted vote," or at best a symbolic act of protest against the mainstream alternatives. Such protest voting may have the effect of making major parties more attentive to environmental issues, but a proportional system of representation is a necessity for the advance of Green parties.

In Britain, the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the London Assembly in 1999 and 2000 facilitated the election of the Greens despite their relatively small share of the overall vote. In New Zealand, the introduction of proportional representation in 1999 led to the election of Green members of parliament (MPs) and to the Greens holding the balance of power. In Australia, the Greens' breakthrough in 2001 came in elections to upper houses elected by proportional representation but not in lower houses where majoritarian systems prevail.

Green parties have seldom grown automatically out of environmental movements. Indeed, if there is a common antecedent to Green parties, it is not so much the broad environmental movement, which traces its origins to the conservation and urban-hygiene movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the anti-nuclear movements and campaigns of the 1970s. Indeed, in countries such as Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, where the environmental movement was already relatively well-institutionalized, environmentalists have often regarded Green parties with indifference or even hostility. The antinuclear campaigns, however, did not enjoy the measure of institutional access commonly accorded to environmental groups. Moreover, they were novel and urgent, and they drew on sections of the left that linked environmental objections to nuclear energy with wider security issues. …

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