May 25, 2023 - 10:15am

“Could Germany get a Green chancellor?” asked many media outlets ahead of the country’s last federal elections in 2021. In the spring of that year, the party polled at 28% in some surveys, a record for them and the strongest of all parties at the time. But since then much has changed. Public scandals and unpopular politics have sent the party into free fall. A survey published this week put the Greens in fourth place, behind the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Many commentators have pinned the increasing disaffection of voters on one of their most prominent leaders: Robert Habeck. Germany’s Vice Chancellor and economy minister was long hailed as the Greens’ strongest asset. With a reputation as a charismatic and pragmatic problem-solver, he seemed the right man to tackle the energy crisis that hit the country when Russia invaded Ukraine and exposed Berlin’s dependence on Moscow for fossil fuels. Habeck emerged as “Germany’s energy hero…the man of the hour,” as the Economist put it.

Now half of German voters want him to resign, according to a recent survey, putting him at 17th place in their popularity ranking of German politicians — the second lowest of all cabinet ministers.

Some hope that Habeck’s fall and that of his party will be temporary, caused only by a recent scandal involving Patrick Graichen, a close aide and deputy minister, who resigned last week following allegations of cronyism. But since then other people in Habeck’s inner circle have also come under closer scrutiny, much to the glee of opposition politicians. Julia Klöckner of the Christian Democrats (CDU) spoke of a “systematic issue due to the close connection between Green members of the government, climate activists, lobby groups and institutions”.

The CDU stands to gain much from the situation. Together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, with whom they form an electoral bloc, they currently poll as the strongest party at 30%. Even one of the Greens’ coalition partners, the Free Liberals (FDP), have distanced themselves from their policies. They stalled one of the Greens’ flagship projects: a ban of the installation of gas boilers in new houses starting next year.

Such policies are perceived as expensive and elitist by large segments of the German public. Surveys range from 50 to 80% of respondents against the gas boiler ban. The fact that Graichen had been one of the key advocates of the policy helped create a direct link between perceptions of corruption and Green Party policies. “Graichen goes…finally. Now the heating bill hammer [boiler ban] must also be taken off the table,” said the CDU’s Peter Liese.

But it’s not just centre-Right politicians who stand ready to capitalise from the loss of trust. The AfD polls in third place at the moment. Their activists have long used phrases like “linksgrün versifft” — “Left-green-dirty” — to whip up anti-establishment feeling. Corruption scandals around Green politicians and their networks confirm pre-existing anger and fan disaffection.

As it stands, the governing coalition is a long way off majority support from the public, if the surveys are accurate. Mainstream politicians would do well to remember that assuming your policies are right is no substitute for engaging with the electorate.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.