Saturday mornings, one often catches a glimpse of Germany’s Environment Minister, Jürgen Trittin, at the farmers’ market on Kollwitzplatz. The market is in the trendy neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, a short bike ride from the Regierungsviertel, the new brushed-and-polished home of the German government. If Trittin and the Green Party should be able to count on sympathy anywhere in former East Germany it is in Prenzlauer Berg, where a bohemian-chic influx of yuppies, students and artists now coexist with the working-class families that inhabited its crumbling brick apartment buildings before the wall fell. In the 1998 elections that brought a Social Democratic-Green government to power for the first time in history, Prenzlauer Berg gave the Greens almost ten times the miserable 2 percent support they eked out across the rest of eastern Germany.
On one recent Saturday, the lanky Trittin, a Green from the party’s left wing who as minister negotiated Germany’s phased shutdown of its nuclear power plants along with an array of other impressive environmental measures, could be seen ducking out from beneath the awning of the smoked mackerel stand. But his presence didn’t provoke much of a stir. My shopping companion, Heike, merely scoffed as she transferred a few organic tomato plants into her wicker basket.
Heike, a thirtysomething single mother, would appear to be a likely supporter of the Greens and their partner party of former East German dissidents. She lives in a large flat with a fluctuating number of other people who share some conception of communal living. During Communism she sided with the underground democracy movement, endured harassment for her alternative lifestyle and when the wall finally fell fled her provincial hometown to squat in a Prenzlauer Berg ruin. But does Heike vote Green? No way. She backs the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the same party that built the wall and ran the most intrusive secret police operation in Eastern Europe. And she will vote for the PDS candidate for mayor, Gregor Gysi, in the city election set for October 23. The PDS may not be perfect, she concedes, but–unlike the Greens–it is a defiant voice on behalf of eastern Germans like herself. Not only that, she is a socialist, and the PDS proudly calls itself a socialist party–democratic socialist–words no other German party dares let cross its lips. The PDS is the only German party to rule out German participation in a military response to the terrorist attacks against the United States.
The PDS’s hold on the East and its slow encroachment on the Greens’ turf in the West are just two of the Greens’ worries. The German Green Party, arguably the premiere Green party in Europe, is in the throes of an extended crisis that threatens its very existence. The divisive, emotional debate over Germany’s role in the “international alliance against terrorism” couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time. The party has suffered ugly setbacks in nineteen straight elections and could be nudged out of the ruling coalition next year should it not stabilize itself quickly. Long gone are the days when it racked up double-digit figures across western Germany. In all of eastern Germany, only in Berlin are the Greens represented in a state legislature.
In desperation, the Greens have tried to tinker with their image in hopes of capturing new voters. This past summer, the party declared that it was no longer “left,” a term that party pragmatists said had lost any meaning, but rather “left-liberal” and/or “left-middle”–as if this would help lure anyone or clarify anything. Its problems go much deeper. A party born in the 1980s and steeped in the 1960s, its vision essentially remains one embedded in the political reality of postwar West Germany, a country that no longer exists. The Green Party’s dilemma is not that its original concerns are suddenly irrelevant or passé–far from it–but rather that its leaders have been reluctant to rethink the party’s raison d’être in the context of a new Federal Republic in an altered geopolitical reality. A major overhaul has been stymied by the fact that the Greens, once a classic anti-establishment protest party, now jointly govern the largest country in western Europe, a loyal US ally and NATO member with the world’s third-biggest economy. It is a position so rife with contradictions that the Greens are imploding at the apex of their political journey.