German voters will be heading to the polls in a general election on 26 September. In an astonishing about turn, there is every chance that Annalena Baerbock could become Germany’s next chancellor at the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year premiership. For several weeks now, Baerbock’s party – the Greens – has been in first place in most opinion polls, ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democrat coalition.
For a while, it was not clear which of its two leaders – Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck – the Greens would be nominated for a run at the chancellorship. Then, on 19 April, they finally confirmed Baerbock as their candidate. At 40, Baerbock would be the youngest chancellor in the history of the Federal Republic. She would also be the most left-wing Chancellor Germany has ever seen.
She studied politics and international law and has been co-leader of Germany’s Greens since January 2018, a role she shares with Habeck. The Greens see themselves as a feminist party, and this may have been the deciding factor in her – rather than Habeck’s – selection as the party’s chancellor candidate.
In the last federal elections in 2017, the Greens secured just 8.9 per cent of the vote, making them the smallest of the six parties in the German parliament. According to the latest polls, the Greens are set to rake in between 24 and 28 per cent of the vote this time around. The same poll places the CDU/CSU (the Christian Democrat-led coalition – Merkel’s governing party) in second place, behind the Greens for the very first time.
Of course, this might well change come September. Though whatever happens, the Greens will exert a decisive influence on the policies pursued by Germany’s next federal government. After all, the only conceivable coalitions after the September elections all involve the Greens either holding the chancellorship or at least taking a very strong second place. It could well be that Germany ends up with a left-wing government led by the Greens in coalition with the SPD and Die Linke. The latest polls suggest that these three parties together would command an overall parliamentary majority. The Social Democrats (SPD) have lurched sharply to the left in recent years – they have more in common with Bernie Sanders than Joe Biden. Die Linke is the latest incarnation of the former communist party that governed East
Germany (after several name changes). The party is led by the Trotskyist Janine Wissler.
In another scenario, the Greens could form a coalition with the CDU/CSU – both parties have said they are open to this idea. Less likely, but not entirely out of the question, is a federal government led by the Greens together with the SPD and the pro-market FDP.
In terms of European policy, the Greens are committed to moving beyond nation-states to establish a “Federal European Republic”. In pursuit of this final goal, they want “the EU to be given an instrument to create a permanent fiscal policy of its own, the use of which cannot be blocked by individual countries in the event of a crisis”.
Essentially, this would mean disempowering national parliaments and enforcing minimum wages all across Europe.
When it comes to international relations, Annalena Baerbock wants Germany’s foreign policy to be guided almost exclusively by moral principles. Economic interests, realpolitik concerns and security policy play no role whatsoever. For instance, the Greens have already said they would be tougher in their dealings with China and Putin’s Russia. But the Greens are also critical of the US and they reject the commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence.
On a domestic front, there is also the highly controversial issue of immigration. Since 2015, Baerbock has backed Angela Merkel’s open borders immigration policy. The Green Party’s election manifesto even goes as far as to advocate a “welcoming immigration policy”. And right now, the Greens are trying to kick a popular Green politician, Boris Palmer, the mayor of the city of Tübingen, out of their party. He has been a vocal critic of his party’s open-borders policies and Baerbock accused him of being a “racist” in recent days. Palmer responded by attacking the Greens for their “cancel culture”.
One of the major distinguishing features of the Greens is their detachment from business: 44 per cent of party members are civil servants or work in the public sector, and civil servants also represent the largest group among their voters. On economic policy, the Greens champion an extremely strong role for the state. As a “last resort”, they have called for real estate companies to be nationalised. In the German capital, Berlin, the Greens are actively supporting an initiative to nationalise housing companies that own more than 3,000 rental apartments.
Then there is the wealth tax, which was abolished in Germany in 1997. The Greens want to reintroduce it on assets of €2 million or more. Top earners would also be required to pay more than 50 per cent income tax. On such issues, the Greens share a lot of ground with the SPD and Die Linke, which have also thrown their support behind calls for the reintroduction of the wealth tax and for significant income tax hikes. If Die Linke has its way, the top income tax rate would be raised as high as 75 per cent. Entrepreneurs in particular have been unsettled by the prospects of a tripartite left-wing government, and many are already considering leaving Germany if that is what the country ends up with.
Baerbock is currently benefiting from the fact that the media, and especially Germany’s television broadcasters, are very sympathetic to her. Many journalists have an inherent affinity for her party, and the quasi-state TV stations ARD and ZDF in particular have done nothing to hide their bias. Just the other day, a conservative journalist ironically enquired as to whether the TV and radio license fees (€8 billion per year), which all Germans are required to pay, could not be classified as tax deductible political donations to the Green party. Some observers have even claimed that Chancellor Angela Merkel would rather see Baerbock succeed her as chancellor than a man from her own party.
Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist. His latest books include The Rich in Public Opinion: What We Think When We Think About Wealth and The Power of Capitalism.
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