Why you should care
In Bavaria, beer and Greens now go together.
Katharina Schulze is not your typical Bavarian politician: She is neither male nor old nor conservative, and when she raises her 1-liter beer mug to the crowd, it is usually filled with Spezi, a sickly-sweet blend of soda and orangeade.
Schulze, 33, is the co-leader of the Bavarian Green party, and the woman at the center of a remarkable political surge. According to recent polls, the Greens are on course to win 18 percent of the vote in next month’s regional election, more than doubling their result from five years ago. If confirmed, the result would make the left-wing environmental party the second largest in Bavaria, a conservative bastion where the Christian Social Union (CSU) — the sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats — has dominated politics for decades.
With Germany’s center-left Social Democrats still mired in crisis, the Greens’ expected advance has fueled speculation over a broader changing of the guard. In some parts of Germany, notably in big cities and in the prosperous south, the Greens have eclipsed the Social Democratic Party as the largest left-of-center political force. At the national level the gap between the two has narrowed markedly.
We Greens stand by the things we have always been saying.
Katharina Schulze, co-leader, Bavarian Green party
According to Schulze and other Green leaders, the party has benefited from making a contrarian political bet: While rival parties on the left and right echo popular concerns about migration and national identity, the Greens remain firm advocates of open borders, help for refugees and deeper European integration. For German voters who share those views, they have become an obvious and increasingly appealing political vehicle.
“Voters notice that the other parties are zigzagging and speaking differently from one day to the other. We Greens stand by the things we have always been saying,” says Schulze.
In some ways, she argues, the Green surge is the flip side of the recent electoral success of the far-right Alternative for Germany: “The political division in the country is no longer just between left and right but also between liberal democrats who are open to the world on one side and the authoritarian, anti-European stream on the other. We belong clearly to the first.”
On migration, the Greens argue that Germans — and Bavarians in particular — should be proud of their record during the 2015–16 refugee crisis, when the country took in more than a million migrants from Syria, Iraq and other crisis countries. “This is one reason why the CSU is falling on its face here in Bavaria with its anti-migration rhetoric,” says Ludwig Hartmann, the other co-leader of the Bavarian Greens. “Things have actually worked out quite well.”
According to Hartmann and Schulze, the Greens are winning support from a variety of political camps: Christians repelled by the CSU’s increasingly strident rhetoric on migration; Social Democrats disgruntled that their party joined the right-leaning government coalition in Berlin; and disappointed liberal voters of the centrist Free Democrats, who welcome the Greens’ campaign against a law granting sweeping new powers to Bavaria’s police.
“Five years ago it was relatively easy to draw a picture of the typical Green voter. Today, I arrive at a campaign event and I recognize the people from the local Green branch and the people from the environmental groups. But who are all the others?” asks Hartmann.
The party’s broadening appeal was visible at a recent campaign event in the small town of Holzkirchen, south of Munich. Over beer and käsespätzle — cheese noodles — about 100 locals gathered upstairs at the Alte Post inn to hear Schulze deliver her idiosyncratic political messages. They ranged from fighting the far right to saving the bees — sprinkled with repeated references to “my Bavaria” and “our beautiful Bavaria.”
In other parts of Germany, such expressions of regional pride might sit awkwardly with a Green leader. In Bavaria, however, the party has long tried to represent an alternative but authentic vision of regional identity that blends progressive politics with a desire to preserve Bavaria’s natural attractions. “For us in Bavaria, the term heimat [homeland] has always been an alternative battle cry against the CSU,” says Anton Hofreiter, the leader of the Greens in the German Parliament, and another Bavarian. “For us, it was the CSU that was destroying our heimat by trying to encase the Danube in concrete, building airport runways and so on.”
Jürgen Falter, a professor of politics at Mainz University, says voters in Bavaria had come to regard the Greens, not the Social Democrats, as the real alternative to the ruling CSU. “The Greens appear to have put down real roots in Bavaria, unlike the SPD. They can show up at the Oktoberfest in dirndl and lederhosen and still look credible,” he says.
Just how compatible the two visions of Bavaria are will be tested after Election Day — when the CSU is likely to have to find a coalition partner to form a government. The Greens say they are ready to take on the responsibility but only if regional premier Markus Söder and his CSU make clear that they too stand for a tolerant, pro-European course.
The political risks of such an alliance for both sides are clear, but Green leaders such as Hofreiter are convinced that the broader surge enjoyed by his party will continue: “I see us becoming the leading force on the center-left in Germany,” he says.
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