In Hamburg, left and right get along

HAMBURG, Germany — The two parties running Hamburg make an odd couple. But a coalition of the far-left Greens and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have run the northern German state for more than a year.

“Two years ago I wouldn’t have even dreamt of it,” said Jans Kerstan, the leader of the Green Party in the Hamburg legislature. “Originally the conservatives were the competitors of the Greens and we were very opposed to many things they stood for.”

The coalition was essentially thrust upon the two groups in a parliamentary system that requires parties to have at least 50 percent of the vote in order to form a government. The CDU won 42.6 percent in the February 2008 state elections while the Greens won 9.6 percent.

Generally, the CDU is seen as the party of big business, while many members of the Greens, when they started their movement in the beginning of the 1980s, were stone-throwing radical leftists who rallied against the cold war military build up and fought police to try to shut down polluting industries, particularly nuclear power plants. After the Greens established themselves as a political party in 1983, the CDU sought to have them banned, said Friedbert Rueb a professor of social science at Berlin’s Humboldt University. He said the CDU went before Germany’s constitutional court to claim that the Green’s socialist, anti-industry positions were un-democratic. “They had the idea of changing the whole society based on ecological principles,” Rueb said.

Until just a few years ago the Greens were in a coalition government with the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) both in the state of Hamburg and at the federal level in Berlin. But that coalition was far less successful than the current one, Kerstan said. “We didn’t have a good experience with the Social Democrats because often they broke their agreements,” he said. “And in the end everybody now sees that in this coalition [with the CDU] we are getting much more accomplished.”

That may be because in the last decade the Greens have focused on environmental issues that have become mainstream while purging themselves of members from the extreme left. Nowadays Green voters come mostly from high-income brackets. They are what the old radicals so despised — yuppies — except they live in energy-efficient homes, drive hybrid cars and buy food that is grown organically.

The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, campaign for traditional Christian values of rural and small town Germany. But their supporters are often also concerned that industry does not pollute their traditional way of life. “Preserving what God has created is a fundamentally conservative position in the best sense of the word,” said the chairman of the CDU’s parliamentarians in Hamburg, Franck Schira.

The new Greens also find themselves drawing on conservative ideologies. “The idea of not going so much in debt, not having too much burden for future generations is an ecological issue but in the end it’s the same with financial issues,” said Kerstan. “And there we have a common understanding [with the CDU] much more than with left-wing parties like the Social Democrats.”

The parliamentary chairman of Hamburg’s Social Democrats, Michael Neumann, spoke disparagingly about the Greens and the new coalition they have formed with the conservatives: “Many call it the coalition of Opera-goers. They are the bohemians who have teamed up with the cultural elite. They are not the sorts of people who concern themselves with social problems. Rather their concern is with everything that is beautiful in the world — art and culture — not how to keep workers employed in industry.“

Kerstan admitted the Greens took an enormous risk forming the coalition. “Many people were very concerned that the Greens would give up their principles and that people would leave the party but in the end it didn’t happen. On the contrary, we have many more people joining.”

Initially Hamburg's two ruling parties struggled to negotiate a series of compromises to accommodate each other’s divergent agendas. But, once the details were agreed upon, both parties say they have worked as hard as they can to live up to the agreement. It includes major reforms to the state’s education system, public transport and regulation of pollution.

One seemingly fundamental difference between the two parties is that the CDU is Christian-based while Greens tend to have a non-religious humanitarian worldview. But Kerstan pointed out that humanitarianism is largely derived from Christian ideals. “In this area we go back to the roots of the Green movement and of conservative ideas,” he said. Some left-leaning Greens are still members of the party in Hamburg, such as Lars Andersen, a biologist and councilman in Hamburg’s municipality of Altona. He is against the current coalition — particularly after the Greens were forced to break one of their key campaign promises of blocking the conservatives from constructing a new coal power plant in Hamburg.

“I tried to finish the coalition when it was clear we couldn’t stop it,” Andersen said. “But only 30 to 40 members out of 200 were with me." He said he then also decided to stay. “If I leave the coalition then I have to leave the party and I think there is no alternative. All other parties are less ecological than the Greens.”

Today the Greens still oppose nuclear power, something most conservatives continue to support, but that issue is largely irrelevant in Hamburg, which only creates power from non-nuclear sources.

Still in the federal elections scheduled for next month differences over nuclear power are seen as a key obstacle to a CDU/Green coalition. National polls show the CDU ahead but it would still need a coalition partner in order to form a government. Currently the CDU is the dominant partner in a so-called “grand coalition” with its main competitor the SPD, but that coalition has been fraught with problems.

The CDU has stated that in the next federal government it plans to form a coalition with the free-market oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP). But if national voting patterns for the European Parliament in June are repeated in September the FDP will not garner enough votes to form a majority government with the conservatives. The Greens, on the other hand, won more votes than the FDP in June, enough to give the CDU the necessary 50 percent.

But whatever happens after the Sept. 27 election, the conservatives and the conservationists will likely be working closely together.