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Germany's Greens Struggle to Stay Politically Viable

Europe: Party decides to put a face with its name to improve its chances in upcoming elections.

January 22, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Like all endangered species, the Greens have learned that adaptation is the key to survival.

On Monday, the party leadership decided to break with tradition and name a lead candidate for this year's German federal election: Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who, unlike his party, has enjoyed steadily rising popularity with voters.

The 13-1 vote by the leadership council to designate Fischer the party's de facto candidate for chancellor was the clearest indication yet that the oft-idealistic environmentalists recognize the need for an internal shake-up if they want to stay in power.

Throughout its 22-year existence, the Greens party has refused to put a single face on electoral aspirations, asking voters to endorse its policies instead. However, the party has lost ground in state balloting during its three-year coalition with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats.

In some cases, the Greens' defeats have cost the Social Democrats their right to govern, as occurred last fall in Hamburg. That erosion of support threatens the future of both parties as they face an invigorated opposition in the Sept. 22 federal vote.

Fischer, a feisty and articulate 53-year-old, is the country's most popular politician and the embodiment of the middle-aged German leftist now more comfortable with armchair-quarterbacking reform than inciting revolution. By abandoning the tenet that naming a top candidate corrupts politics with "personalization," the Greens are hoping to ride Fischer's coattails and receive the minimum 5% of votes needed to be awarded seats in state and federal parliaments.

The same national polls showing Fischer atop the list of most trusted politicians also show the Greens as a party flirting with irrelevance. The Dimap polling group over the weekend forecast just a 5% share of the federal vote for the party and 37% for Schroeder's Social Democrats, suggesting that the two governing partners would be ousted from power if the elections were held now.

Schroeder enjoys wide respect and came in just behind Fischer on Monday in the latest survey published by Der Spiegel magazine. He has introduced watershed tax and pension reforms and steered Germans into a more activist role in international affairs. But with the world's third-largest economy in recession and unemployment at 10%, he is vulnerable to the criticism of conservative opponent Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union that the chancellor has failed to deliver on 1998 election promises.

Forecasts show the CSU and its larger sister party, the Christian Democratic Union, garnering as much support, or more, as Schroeder's Social Democrats. The conservatives' usual partner in government, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, poll about 9%. The Free Democrats could play the role of kingmaker and have openly pondered a federal alliance with Schroeder if the Greens fail to win enough votes.

That fate may suit Schroeder anyway, as the Greens have been a source of international embarrassment and internal consternation throughout most of his tenure. Just two months ago, eight Greens members of the federal Parliament refused to support the government's decision to send troops to help in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, prompting Schroeder to call a vote of confidence that he won only by strong-arming four of the eight rebels into changing their position.

In addition to the naming of Fischer as party candidate, there is another sign that the Greens are moving toward the mainstream. Several of the party purists who refused to endorse the troop deployment appear to have been dropped from the list of reelection candidates.

At a weekend session here, Berlin Greens scratched die-hard pacifist Hans-Christian Stroebele in favor of human rights activist Werner Schulz, a more moderate member from the formerly Communist eastern states. At least three other Greens who joined Stroebele in fighting the deployment appear likely to be edged out when party leaders in their states complete the list of candidates.

Under German law, any citizen can run for a seat in Parliament to represent his or her electoral district after meeting routine nomination and eligibility requirements. But half of the 598 seats to be decided this year will be apportioned to candidates ranked on party lists, according to the share of the vote won by the parties that garnered 5% or more of the total.

German voters get two ballots, one to choose their local representative and one to show support for a party. There is no direct vote for chancellor. The party drawing the biggest share of the vote earns the right to lead coalition talks, and the lead candidate of the highest-drawing party in the coalition traditionally becomes chancellor.

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