The Green Who Would Be Germany's Kingmaker

Germany's Green Party has long had a reputation for tree-hugging idealism, but under their new Bundestag leader, Joschka Fischer, the Greens are now trying to make the huge leap from gadflies to power brokers. "There's no point in being in politics if you don't get into power," the telegenic Fischer, 47, tells the thirtysomethings and ex-hippies, who form the party's backbone.

The Greens' goal is to replace the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) as the third force in German politics--behind Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In an effort to win over young professionals, the Greens are moving beyond strict environmentalism. They are pushing to curb automatic entitlements and to cut government bureaucracy. Recently, they said that the state of Lower Saxony should sell its 20% stake in Volkswagen to slash the interest payments on loans used to finance that holding.

"DRESS REHEARSAL." But if the Greens succeed, Germany's political center of gravity will shift sharply leftward. The FDP, which backs free-market capitalism, has been Germany's kingmaker for a generation, wielding influence far beyond the 7% to 10% it won in national elections. But the party is now in steep decline. The Greens are outpolling the FDP nationally, and in last May's elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, the FDP failed to clear the 5% threshold for seats, while the Greens, who won 10% of the vote, wound up in a ruling coalition with the SPD. "It's a dress rehearsal for national power," says political consultant Heinz Schulte. "North Rhine-Westphalia is where general elections are won and lost."

Indeed, the SPD's embattled leader, Rudolf Scharping, now apparently sees cooperation with the Greens as his best shot at unseating Kohl, who has doggedly hung on to power since 1982. Scharping, who is slipping in the polls, had been adamantly opposed to sharing power with the Greens but now calls the North Rhine-Westphalia arrangement a test of "the potential" for a national coalition with them.

Having won this much respectability, Fischer, whose cohorts have 49 of the 672 Bundestag seats, is doing his best to persuade skeptics that they can trust him. He argues that environmentally friendly industry will create jobs in such areas as pollution control. He also promises that a huge proposed energy tax, which would more than double the price of gasoline, to $11.50 per gallon, would be revenue neutral. Says consultant Schulte: "[The Greens] are prepared to sell their soul for seats in the next government."

EASTERN RADICALS. The Greens are having some success in at least softening the criticism of business chiefs. Fischer, for instance, seems to be establishing a working relationship with Hans-Olaf Henkel, former CEO of IBM Deutschland and now president of the Federation of German Industry. Henkel had been critical of the Greens' program, including a move to a 30-hour workweek, a legal ban on overtime, and imposition of speed limits on the currently unfettered autobahns. But now one of his aides says of the Greens: "In recent weeks, many of their statements have been moderate and pragmatic."

Still, many business leaders worry that Fischer will be undercut by party radicals, particularly those from east Germany. A major showdown seems likely at the party congress in Bremen in December. Militant Greens known as "Fundis" don't want to abandon cherished demands, including immediate shutdowns of nuclear plants and autobahn speed limits. "Realos" like Fischer say they want to continue pursuing environmental goals but to be more flexible in reaching them. If the pragmatists lose, then Kohl can sleep easier.

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