Germany: The Wilting Of The Greens?

Dressed in a chic black silk suit and T-shirt, Joschka Fischer emerges from his campaign bus in the northern German town of Erkelenz to stump for national elections on Sept 27. In blistering summer heat, the 50-year-old leader of Germany's Alliance 90/The Greens hammers at themes that would once have gagged the former environmental radical: more jobs, lower corporate taxes, smaller government.

The Greens have come a long way from their tree-hugging days. But just as the pragmatic Fischer seemed poised to help end Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 16-year reign by forming a ruling coalition with the Social Democratic Party, ideologues within his party made a series of gaffes that is pushing power beyond the Greens' grasp. Since the spring, their support has slid to just 6% of voters, from a peak of 14% last summer, and even below their 7.3% score in 1994 elections.

"MISTAKES." The fundamentalist wing of the party, the Fundis, scared off new supporters by attacking some of Germany's sacred cows. They called for a 62 mph speed limit on the country's Autobahnen, tax hikes that would triple gasoline pump prices, to more than $12 per gallon over 10 years, and a limit on vacations involving air travel to one every five years per person. "We've made mistakes, of course--the mistakes of newcomers," admits Fischer.

However, the rookie fumbles aren't likely to be forgiven quickly. The SPD and the Greens together now poll 47%, down from last summer's 52% peak and only narrowly ahead of a 44% share for Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and its Free Democratic Party allies. As a result, the prospect of a Red-Green coalition between the SPD and Greens is receding. "A Red-Green coalition is still possible, but it's not guaranteed," says SPD official Matthias Machnig.

The opposition hasn't lost all hope of winning an overall majority. With the election less than two months away, 40% of voters are still undecided. If Fischer can regain lost ground, he could still play kingmaker for Gerhard Schroder, the SPD's candidate for Chancellor. "Kingmaker? The Greens are more like a king killer," sniffs Hans-Joachim Veen, head of political research at the CDU's Konrad Adenauer Foundation think tank in Bonn. Analysts like Oliver Krieg, political researcher at the Emnid Institute polling outfit in Bielefeld, say the Greens won't be able to regain their momentum anytime soon. If the SPD can't itself scoop up enough votes, the self-destruction of the Greens could force it into a grand coalition with Kohl's CDU.

Fischer, who comes from the realistic--or Realo--side of the party, has worked hard to steer the Greens into the political mainstream. Officially, the party supports the euro, Europe's single currency. It continues to back Germany's participation in Bosnian peacekeeping missions. It also wants to cut corporate tax rates to 35% from 45% and relax rigid labor laws. "We want to develop a good climate for investment," says Fischer.

But the Fundis' summer follies make it hard for the Greens to appear anything but a divided, one-issue party. Two-thirds of voters polled by Emnid in mid-July think the Greens are unfit to be in federal government. Moreover, the Allensbach Institute found that 52% of voters polled in 1997 thought there were enough environmental laws already, compared with 24% in 1984. "The Greens are out of fashion," says co-director Renate Kocher. "Other points are more important now."

Fischer once said there's no sense being in politics if you don't want to win power. In the campaign's remaining weeks, he's got to convince voters that giving the Greens power makes sense.