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Shades of Moderation in Germany's Greens Party

The group is toning down its strident proposals in order to secure a foothold in the power structure.


BERLIN — They were born of social conflict and long dismissed as lunatic fringe, but the graying Greens of Germany today might almost be taken for mainstream.

No longer do the protesters turned Parliament members refuse to wear neckties in the hallowed halls of the Federal Assembly.

No longer do the champions of conservation and civil liberties view compromise as a form of capitulation.

No longer do the aging activists of the antinuclear movement argue that screaming at the leadership from the sidelines is a higher calling than working on the country's problems from within.

The Greens are now the third-strongest political force in Germany, with opinion surveys projecting that they will hold on to about 7% of the national vote when federal elections for a new Parliament are held Sunday.

And with neither of the traditional big parties expected to win an outright majority and the right to name a chancellor, the Greens could well find themselves in the unfamiliar roles of kingmaker and partner in a governing coalition.

Most polls forecast that the left-of-center Social Democratic Party will top the Christian Democratic Union and collect the largest share of the vote--40% or more. But the Social Democrats would probably need to join with the Greens to control a majority of the 656-seat Federal Assembly.

"This is a historic opportunity for our party," effused Cem Oezdemir, one of the Greens' 49 members of the Federal Assembly. "We've spent 16 years in opposition, and now is the time when a majority of our party wants to practice what we've learned."

But to become acceptable in government, the Greens have had to tone down more strident proposals that strike fear in the hearts of most citizens: imposing speed limits on the freewheeling autobahns; tripling gasoline prices; immediately shutting down nuclear power plants; and withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

While more fundamentalist members of the Greens accuse party leaders Joschka Fischer and Kerstin Mueller of selling the soul of the movement, the bulk of the party decided ahead of the election campaign that moderation was the best course for finally gaining a foothold in the power structure.

If the Greens gain a role in the leadership for the first time in their 19-year history, Fischer has made clear that he wants to serve as vice chancellor and foreign minister in the government that would be headed by Social Democratic leader Gerhard Schroeder.

Nowhere is the political evolution of the Greens more evident than in foreign policy. In addition to espousing a break with the U.S.-led NATO, the party in the past had urged full demilitarization of Germany.

Fischer's own political turnabout was spurred by the ethnic violence in the former Yugoslav federation earlier this decade, when he and other policymakers conceded that a more interventionist strategy was needed.

Now Greens lawmakers have tacitly endorsed using German troops not only as peacekeepers but also, under specific circumstances, in a combat role.

The Greens also expect to control the Environment Ministry in any coalition with the Social Democrats, and perhaps the federal offices responsible for family and social welfare if the party's share of the vote is strong enough, Oezdemir said.

Party leaders acknowledge that a phaseout of the use of nuclear power would have to be gradual, as would the cornerstone of their ecological platform--limiting fossil fuel emissions by tripling the price of gas, to the equivalent of about $11 a gallon, over the next decade.

"The Social Democrats are agreeable to some kind of ecological tax reform. The only differences are in the timing and scale of the initial increase," said Birgit Daiber, leader of the Greens' Berlin delegation.

The party that took shape nearly two decades ago amid protests against deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe is still home to some purists who push ideas far beyond what many Germans will accept, such as a proposal that air travel by Germans for vacation purposes be limited to no more than once every five years.

"The majority of our party members do not take such comments seriously," Daiber said.


Election Share

The Greens' vote share in federal elections has grown since the party's founding in 1979. A party in Germany generally needs at least 5% of the vote to gain seats in the Federal Assembly.

1980: 1.5%

1983: 5.6%

1987: 8.3%

1990*: 3.9%

1994: 7.3%

* First election after German reunification, with a one-time waiver of threshold for gaining parliamentary seats .

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