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In Hamburg, left and right get along

A coalition of Greens and the Christian Democratic Union has run the state for more than a year.

Re-elected Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust of the Christian Democratic Union, right, looks at newly elected head of the Ministry of Education and Deputy Mayor Christa Goetsch of the Green Party during a group picture with all members of the new state government after the swearing-in ceremony in Hamburg, May 7, 2008. (Morris Mac Matzen/Reuters)

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.“