Germany’s Green party has said it remains confident of securing the chancellorship and succeeding Angela Merkel at the country’s autumn election despite a drop in the polls, as it officially endorsed its lead candidate for the job.
Setbacks in recent weeks have led to the Greens slipping to second place behind Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after commanding the polls for the first time in years. But this did not dissuade delegates from wholeheartedly throwing their support behind Annalena Baerbock at the party’s annual gathering on Saturday.
She received 98.5% of support at the weekend conference in a former post office rail depot in Berlin which many participants watched via video link.
Using her victory speech to emphasise the “fundamental changes and reforms” which she said were needed throughout Germany, Baerbock, 40, said: “There can be no more excuses, no ducking or muddling through … we are fighting for a new awakening.”
She apologised for mistakes she had made in the past weeks, including over her failure to register extra payments to parliament as well as errors on her CV which have since been corrected. Critics have seized on both incidents, saying they prove the party’s lack of professionalism and trustworthiness, and they are believed to have contributed to her own personal fall in the polls from a month ago – from 28% to 16% – to put her behind her main rival, Armin Laschet of the CDU.
The latest poll showed the Greens have dropped 6 points in the polls to 20% and the CDU has risen 5 points to 28%, prompting speculation over whether the Greens will manage to regain their momentum.
The poll results have also led to calls for Baerbock’s co-leader, Robert Habeck, to take the candidacy from her, although the idea was rejected at the weekend. Their joint leadership was also reconfirmed in a vote on Saturday.
Baerbock thanked the party for its “full solidarity” and for the “tailwind” it had given her to deal with the “headwind of the past few weeks”.
The mood surrounding the end of the 16-year Merkel era, together with urgency over the climate emergency and growing optimism that the pandemic will soon be under control, is being seized on by the Green party, which hopes to garner many new voters when Germans go to the polls on 26 September.
“For the first time in decades change is in the air,” Baerbock told delegates. “An era is coming to an end, and we have the chance to found a new one.”
But the party’s biggest challenge remains how it will take voters with it, amid a growing realisation that enthusiasm among young people in particular to do something for the climate crisis does not necessarily translate into ballots as easily as it might have hoped.
Analysts have compared the gap between ideology and the ballot box to intent and action, pointing at studies which show that Germans’ intentions to behave in an environmentally friendly manner do not mean they will. In a recent questionnaire, 24% of frequent flyers said they would be prepared to pay a form of compensation for the C02 emissions they had caused. But in reality less than 1% do so.
The party is aware of the difficulty it will have to communicate the link between what it sees as moral aspiration and tangible action without sounding heavy-handed and didactic.
It has a long-standing reputation, which it is trying to shake off, as a stickler for regulations. It was ridiculed for suggesting the introduction of one meat-free day a week in work canteens eight years ago; it has been attacked for appearing to recently question the ecological sense of single-family homes; and Baerbock earned scorn after appearing to suggest short-haul flights should be banned. What she actually said was that the rail network should be developed to the extent that short-haul flights would become obsolete, but that was not the line which stuck.
But the overall and perhaps most damaging impression being successfully pushed by opponents is that the Greens could make life for many Germans not just more rule-bound and restrictive, but also a lot more expensive.
The party’s plans to raise petrol prices have earned it derision and prompted accusations its policies will hit the least well off, leaving Baerbock and Habeck at pains to prove they will strive for social fairness.
Delegates have grappled with the question of whether the party can manage to communicate its message that measures such as higher fuel costs and CO2 emission compensation will ultimately translate into a better world. It has pledged to give revenues back to those less well off.
Habeck, in particular, tried hard to hammer home the message to delegates and the wider audience, that the party is one of “Freiheit nicht Vorschrift” – freedom not regulation.
But while for some party supporters its policies are seen as going too far, others feel the party is not going nearly far enough.
The traditional frictions between the 40-year-old party’s wings of so-called “realos” (realists) and “fundis” or fundamentalists have changed, but the groups still very much make their positions felt and the gap between them is often considerable.
In a row over the CO2 emission price, party leaders have insisted they are committed to €60 (£51) a ton from 2023. But Jakob Blasel, a 21-year-old climate activist who wants to represent the party in the Bundestag, delivered a passionate plea to delegates via video link for a price of €80 a ton by 2022, to rise annually by €15. Only then, he argued, would Germany have a chance of reaching Paris climate goals to limit global warming to 1.5C. He warned the Greens against “beating a hasty retreat in the face of criticism” over climate protection.