Why you should care
Because climate activism might stop the far-right in Europe.
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage environmentalist, seems to have done more than just inspire students to take to the streets: Her Fridays for Future revolution is increasingly moving to the European ballot box.
From the EU parliamentary elections in May to the coming Swiss national elections on Sunday, Green parties are emerging as unlikely political winners, gaining dramatically — often at the cost of far-right parties that have in recent years been on the rise. Ireland sent its first Green representatives to the European Parliament this year while other countries saw advances of up to 30 percent in vote shares for Green candidates.
In September, Austria’s Greens gained more than a 10 percent increase in vote support, giving them 26 seats in Parliament where they had none earlier. They’re now the third strongest party and a contender for coalition talks with winner Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The right wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) dropped 20 seats in the elections.
It’s a countermovement to the populists and the nationalists.
Joachim Blatter, political science professor
On Oct. 20, the two Green parties in Switzerland are set to see the biggest gains in a national election. The Green Party and the center-left Green Liberal Party are together up 5 percent in the latest polls. That doesn’t seem like much, but in the Alpine country where sentiment moves at a glacial pace, it’s a lot. The far-right Swiss People’s Party, which reached a historic high of 40 percent of the votes in the previous election, is now polling at 25 percent.
And the historically conservative German state of Baden-Württemberg is now ruled by Green politician Winfred Kretschmann, who oversees a coalition with the center-conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Experts say that in giving Greens a push in Central Europe, voters are venting their frustration with centrist parties that have done little for the environment and simultaneously sending a counter-message to nationalists and populists who have dominated the last decade.
“The climate has gotten a spectacular face [in Thunberg], and it’s become well mobilized,” says Joachim Blatter, a professor of political science at the University of Lucerne. “It’s a countermovement to the populists and the nationalists.”
This sudden rise in support for Greens coincides with protests and civil disobedience movements across the world — from Australia to Amsterdam, Berlin to Buenos Aires — that attempt to compel governments around the world to concretely act to save the planet. Yet while protests raise awareness and force debate, the recent electoral results suggest voters are also using their choices at the ballot box this year to draw the attention of politicians.
Clemens Dus, a graphic designer in Vienna, says he had considered voting with another party but switched to the Greens in the September elections for strategic reasons. “I am devoted to the topic of sustainability, and the Greens are the only party with influence that has this reliably on their agenda,” he says.
Over in Switzerland, voters have traditionally and fairly consistently voted right of center. For decades, Blatter says the far-right Swiss People’s Party captured about one-third of the ballots before their best-ever performance the last elections. But the Greens might now be on the verge of stopping that juggernaut. “They are still the strongest party in Switzerland, but the trend is downward,” Blatter says.
This trend mirrors a growing weariness of the rancorous politics dominated by fear and anger that has grown across Europe this decade, say experts. Instead, at least in Switzerland, Austria and a few other countries, voters appear ready to move away from inward-looking nationalism to an acceptance that governments must work together to solve the earth’s most pressing problems. At the same time, it’s an acknowledgment that the market economy — supported by centrist parties — may not be able to handle the climate crisis either.
“The avant-garde is needed to think ahead, but we also need those who take on the challenges — that’s what realpolitik means,” Austria’s Green Party chief Werner Kogler said at a press conference five days after his party’s historic gains in September.
Only time will tell whether centrist governments take heed of voters’ cry for change. For now, Green is the color of success.