The German Greens: ‘radically’ fit for office

Our latest blog post has been provided by Chantal Sullivan-Thomsett, whose PhD Project (based jointly at the School of Languages and POLIS, both at the University of Leeds) focuses on the German Green party’s contemporary means of political engagement. This post provides reflections on the Party’s recent conference in Berlin – where they marked the launch of their platform redrafting process – and further details about Chantal’s research focus.

During the German Green Party’s ascendance into the political system in the 1980s and 1990s, the question on everybody’s lips was ‘are they Regierungsfähig?’ In other words, were the Greens fit for office? 13 years on from the first, and so far, only, national level coalition which involved the Greens, in addition to an extensive professionalisation of the party, they now want to show everyone just how ‘radically’ fit for office they are.

On the 13th and 14th April, I attended the German Green Party’s Berlin conference for redrafting their party principles programme. The current party principles programme, ‘The Future is Green’, was created in 2002. At this time, the German Greens were in national government with the social democrats, smartphone zombies (or Smombies as the Germans call them) were a long way off, and the eastern expansion of the European Union had not yet occurred. Thus, sixteen years later in the aftermath of the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the increasing rise of nationalism in Europe, it is no wonder that the Greens are framing the process as ‘New Times, New Answers’. However, this process could be more than just posing ‘new’ or ‘radical’ answers to the ‘new’ problems facing society today; it could be a deliberate re-positioning of the party’s ideology. Gayil Talshir (2003) has already compared previous incarnations of these ‘ideological documents’ to demonstrate how ‘The Future is Green’ marked an ideological shift to classical liberalism within the German Greens, away from the more radical, eco-socialist ideology of the equivalent programme produced at the party’s founding in 1980.

The German Greens are allowing two years for this redrafting process, in which party members are encouraged to participate in creating a platform fit-for-the-future. The party hopes to engage both party grassroots and external experts to crowdsource and extensively discuss party positions on a variety of issues, including digitalisation, genetic engineering and the economy. This will take part both in traditional offline forms within the party structure, as well as online. The process should, therefore, exemplify the long-standing Green commitment to participation and discussion despite the now established nature of the party within German politics. The end result should herald what they call the ‘fourth phase’ of the Greens, moving past the three, self-defined, previous phases: the protest party of the 1980s, the Social Democrat-Green ‘project party’ through to 2005, and, since 2005, the ‘doing the splits’ phase, by which they mean governing in various coalition constellations at state level whilst simultaneously being in federal opposition. In comparison, the fourth ‘Greens 4.0’ phase, they claim, will need to ‘pose questions that could cause pain’ to come out of these splits and ‘run’ forward.

This use of anthropomorphism to describe the ‘fitness’ of the German Greens in parliaments is a running thread I have discovered in the course of my research. Back in the ‘protest’ phase, a football analogy was one of the ways to describe how the ‘anti-party party’ functioned. This was based on the figurines used in the game Tipp-Kick, a kind of German version of Subbuteo, who had one immobile leg and one moveable leg.


Kick-Tipp figurine. Source: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. License: CC BY SA 2.0


The leg rooted to the ground provides stability to the figurine and was known as the Standbein. The Standbein was said to represent the dominant force of the social movements within the early Greens. The pivot leg moves the ball around the pitch and was known as the Spielbein. The Spielbein was said to represent any members of parliament the Greens obtained. In contrast to the early party, the gymnastic splits of the Greens of recent years suggests that, as the legs sit apart in different directions, they are stuck, no matter the strength required for such an exercise. So, this new call for ‘radical answers’ to the current ‘ills’ in society, can be summed up as bringing the legs back together to ‘run’ into office.

The contradictory ideas introduced at this launch event of ‘radical’ answers to get the party fit for the marathon of entering national office lie at the very core of my project: ‘Professionalised Protest? The gentrification of protest within the contemporary German Green Party’. In my doctoral research, I want to explore the contemporary relationship and role of protest within the German Greens through the experiences and perspectives of Green Party members and activists. Green Party history and identity is closely intertwined with the student movement around 1967/1968 and the New Social Movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the Kick-Tipp analogy was not about a Green party fit for office, but a party in which those protesting on the streets took precedence over those members of the party who were MPs in local or national parliaments. Despite their assertions of long having moved on from being a protest party, the Greens, and their members and activists in particular, continue to participate and engage with protest action and demonstrations. How can we describe this dynamic? The ‘movement party’ concept has gained notoriety in recent years with the ascendance of anti-establishment parties like SYRIZA, the Five Star Movement, and Podemos. Yet, the idea of referring to the professionalised and established German Greens as a movement party seems inadequate to account for their relationship with protest. To try and gain a better understanding of the Greens’ relationship with protest, I will conduct an ethnographic study of members of the German Greens. I also plan to construct an original theoretical framework based around the term ‘gentrification’, exploring ideas of a ‘gentrified’ political system, a ‘gentrification aesthetic’, and cultural gentrification.

Chantal Sullivan-Thomsett is a PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds. You can stay updated about her research by following her on Twitter @chantalS_T