In the race for chancellor, Greens’ rising star may be Merkel’s ‘natural successor’

Co-leader of the Green party Annalena Baerbock presents the draft of their party's electoral program in Berlin on March 19, 2021 ahead of the German general election taking place end of September 2021.
Co-leader of the Green party Annalena Baerbock presents the draft of their party's electoral program in Berlin on March 19, 2021 ahead of the German general election taking place end of September 2021. © John MacDougall, AFP

For the first time in its 40-year history, the German Greens are making a tilt for the country’s most prestigious post, naming the only woman candidate in the race for chancellor. Once a fringe environment party, the Greens could become the leading political force in Germany – and with a woman successor to Angela Merkel. 


Germany’s Greens on Monday named Annalena Baerbock, 40, as the party’s first-ever candidate for chancellor. Young, ambitious and with an international outlook, Baerbock is the new face of the modern Greens movement at a time when Germany’s post-war political system has become, in the eyes of many voters, tired and out of date.

“I am running for renewal while others represent the status quo,” said Baerbock at Monday’s press conference to announce her candidacy. 

A leadership squabble, which for weeks had been playing out inside Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats party (CDU), finally ended Tuesday when Armin Laschet, a veteran politician, was picked to bid for the top job in September’s elections. It brought an end to the chaos that had bogged down the party but the fallout still lingers.

Naming Baerbock has shaken up a field crowded with long-serving, mostly middle-aged career politicians – and all of them men.  She has already been compared to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Finland’s Sanna Marin who represent an emerging generation of dynamic and popular women leaders.

“Strategically it makes sense to have her as a contrast to the other candidates, simply because there were no other women running,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.

The Greens have never led a national government. But Baerbock could lead the Greens into becoming the largest party in a ruling coalition, if the polls, which place them second behind the conservatives and ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), are to be believed. 

“They will be part of the next government,’’ Norbert Röttgen, a Christian Democrat, told the New York Times. “Either a big part or even the leading part.’’

Even so, much has been made of her political inexperience.

An editorial in Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper described her as a “wise” choice but said it was nonetheless “zeitgeisty to trust a 40-year-old with no government experience with the most important political office in the state”.

Rising star

Baerbock has had a rapid rise to power. She leapt to fame after she became co-party leader in 2018 after only five years in political office and as a member of parliament in Berlin’s Bundestag.

But she burnished her Greens’ credentials at a much earlier age. Her parents took her to anti-nuclear rallies and she described her childhood as a blend of water cannon at protests followed by cake at home. She has a background in international law and spent a year studying in the United States, an experience she describes as character building.

Since she was catapulted to co-party leader, successive polls show the Greens surging. Clearly, she has resonated with the electorate. While her policies straddle traditional party lines – no nuclear weapons and a vision for climate change mitigation and resilience – she is set on acting as a modernising force for the Greens.  

She wants to phase out coal-powered energy far earlier than the target of 2038, and wants an economy less reliant on the existing old-fashioned manufacturing model. She also plans to ramp up the digital sector.

David-Wilp says Baerbock’s security and foreign policy would also likely herald a shift.

“She stands out for her deep knowledge of foreign policy,” said David-Wilp. “She shows that the Greens can be modern and bold in the sense of being more strident in terms of Germany’s position on China and Russia.”

Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green member of the European Parliament agrees, forecasting a more proactive take on foreign relations, a commitment to the EU bloc and strengthening of Germany’s commitment to NATO.

“This is a different party, a different generation, a different setting and a different world,” he said.

Whereas the Greens may still be considered a fringe party in many other countries, in Germany they have been evolving as a mainstream political force for years. Eleven out of 16 of Germany’s regional governments are now led by Greens.

It perhaps explains why German pundits were not so surprised to hear that the Greens were finally pitching for the country’s most prestigious job, after years of slowly veering to the centre in a bid for broader appeal.

Merkel’s natural successor?

Baerbock is in many respects a natural successor to Merkel. For some years, the German government under Merkel has been phasing out nuclear and coal and heeding the call from voters to act on climate change.

Globally, too, leaders from non-green parties are now steering their countries towards the greener end of the political spectrum.

At this week’s US-led climate talks, world leaders pledged to make drastic cuts to carbon emissions and under Biden’s presidency, the US has returned to global climate negotiations.

Greens come of age

According to a recent poll, the Greens have 22% of the vote, second only to Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc. Whether this will translate into votes at the ballot box remains to be seen. In Germany, Greens often poll far better in the lead-up to an election.

Despite some party purists worried about how far Baerbock may be willing to take the party to secure power, there is optimism that the Greens may finally have come of age. It may be conceivable that Europe’s largest economy may for the first time rest in the hands of those who were once radicals, now turned centrists.

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