Hamburg coalition: Too many bitter pills for German Greens?

1st May 2008, Comments 0 comments

The unusual political marriage in the northern city-state is unlikely to serve as a model for federal politics in Berlin in the foreseeable future.

Berlin -- The coalition deal joining Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) with the Greens in Hamburg breaks new political ground for both sides.

The unusual political marriage in the northern city-state is unlikely to serve as a model for federal politics in Berlin in the foreseeable future.

"The CDU is simply too strong," says Richard Stoess, a politics professor at Berlin's Free University.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, are at around 42 percent in the polls. Their preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP, is on 7 percent plus.

Under the German federal electoral system, that would be enough to secure a majority in the Bundestag when elections are held in the autumn of next year.

"In fact the Hamburg coalition deal strengthens the hand of the CDU in dealing with the FDP, as they can threaten them with turning to the Greens instead," Stoess says.

The CDU-Greens alliance is an odd one.

Seen as an unreliable maverick force bent on upsetting the political establishment when they erupted onto the political landscape at the end of the 1970s, the Greens first took on coalition responsibility at state level from 1985, progressing to partnership in the federal government from 1998 to 2005.

But their partners were always the Social Democrats (SPD) - and their sworn enemies the conservative, traditionalist and deeply establishment CDU.

Now they have entered into a four-year pact with Hamburg's CDU mayor, Ole von Beust. And they cannot leave without incurring serious damage in the early elections that would inevitably follow, Stoess believes.

The professor thinks Beust may have outmaneuvered the Hamburg Greens by letting them have the energy portfolio.

The key issue is a coal-fired power station being built at Moorburg within the city limits by the Swedish company Vattenfall.

The plant is anathema to the Greens, even though it is a modern one that uses the surplus energy to heat homes rather than discharging it through traditional cooling towers. Coal is, after all, the "dirtiest" energy source.

Their minister, or senator as Hamburg terms them, will now occupy the hot seat when the final license is agreed, or denied.

Giving Moorburg the go-head would be "a bitter pill for the Greens," Stoess says.

The party has already swallowed one such pill.

In exchange for 40 million euros ($65 million) in funding for environmental projects, the party has reluctantly agreed to a CDU pet project: dredging the River Elbe to take the largest container ships.

Greens federal chairman Reinhard Buetikofer alluded to these concessions when he predicted the coalition "will not be a cuddling session."

"There will be a lot of strenuous wrangling," Buetikofer said.

Greens politicians taking cabinet responsibility could come under extreme pressure from the rank and file if there are too many bitter pills, Stoess says.

Nevertheless, he sees the deal as good for the Greens in a changing political landscape that has seen the rise of another new party, the Left, which has its main base in the formerly communist east but has made its presence felt in state elections in the west this year.

There are now five major blocs contesting the field: the traditional powerhouses of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, with the Greens, the FDP and the Left all bidding for around 10 percent of the vote.

"The Greens may have made a mistake in taking energy. It's a potential landmine. But joining the coalition has strengthened their hand in the party political system," he says.

Senior Greens politicians, such as former federal government ministers Juergen Trittin and Renate Kuenast, have in fact cut forlorn figures in recent years.

The wave that swept the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, from office in 2005 took its toll on his coalition partners. The Greens were for a time completely out of government at federal and state level.

That drought ended with a coalition deal with the SPD last year in the city-state of Bremen, another northern port.

But Hamburg is an altogether larger challenge for the party. Too many concessions on environmental issues could tear the local party apart, with knock-on effects in the Bundestag elections next year.


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