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A Merkel Alliance With the Greens? It Could Happen

The Green-CDU government in Germany’s auto heartland shows a national coalition is possible

 Angela Merkel and Winfried Kretschmann

Photographer: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images Europe

In the decades since World War II, Daimler AG’s massive factory in the German city of Sindelfingen has churned out millions of Mercedes-Benz luxury sedans and sports cars, often equipped with high-tech diesel engines. Many of those vehicles could soon face bans along the 20-mile trip to Daimler’s headquarters in neighboring Stuttgart under clean-air contingency plans by the state government. “The push for innovative technology in the German car industry starts in Baden-Wuerttemberg,” says legislator Thomas Hentschel, whose Green party runs the state along with the Christian Democratic Union.

Germany’s diesel scandal—and the response to it by Winfried Kretschmann, the state’s Green premier—illustrates the kind of politics Germans might expect if the party entered into a government with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU after the national election on Sept. 24. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and other top advisers to Merkel have signaled they're open to an alliance with the Greens in the likely event that the Christian Democrats don’t win an outright majority. 

It’s never been done before, but Elmar Brok, a Merkel ally who holds a CDU seat in the European Parliament, says the record of cooperation in German state governments bodes well. “It might also be possible at the federal level,” he told Bloomberg Television.

Though critics from both the right and the left question the wisdom of such cooperation, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Schaeuble’s home state, offers evidence that it can work: For the past 15 months, the unconventional allies have run the government there—the only state where the Greens have ever led such a coalition.

Kretschmann, 69, a former student radical who once protested against a national nuclear-waste dump, is the conservative face of the Greens’ political evolution, which explains his appeal in an economic powerhouse where he ended nearly six decades of CDU rule in 2011. After the federal election, he’ll be a key promoter of engaging with Merkel if the coalition math adds up.

Read More: A Guide to Germany’s Possible Coalitions

The Greens and Merkel already align on some national issues, including a pro-European stance, maintaining sanctions on Russia and a liberal refugee policy. (When Merkel was teetering at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, Kretschmann, a Roman Catholic, said he’s praying for her.) In forming the Baden-Wuerttemberg government, pragmatic compromises soon emerged on increasing the police force and maintaining a multi-tier high-school system.

Most surprisingly, the Greens gave up their long-standing opposition to video surveillance of public spaces, accepting the CDU’s argument that it helps deter crime. Thomas Dörflinger, 47, a former asset manager and newly minted CDU state lawmaker, says he was wary at first, but now “cooperation is working better than I would have thought, particularly on public safety.”

Kretschmann has presided over growth and Germany’s second-lowest regional jobless rate while appeasing the concerns of environmentalists with measures such as expanding mass transit. Under the Greens, Baden Württemberg’s economy last year grew by 2.2 percent, the most among western Germany’s large states, banishing initial fears that environmental rules imposed by a Green government could kill the competitive edge of companies in the state.

Angela Merkel And Winfried Kretschmann
Angela Merkel and Winfried Kretschmann
Photographer: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

The Green premier’s handling of this year’s diesel crisis, which included a winter smog alert in Stuttgart, was instructive: after favoring a partial diesel-car ban in the state capital, he backed off under pressure from carmakers, saying he recognizes the concerns of the industry and commuters. Yet the mere threat of driving bans in the homeland of Mercedes and Porsche has been key to pushing automakers toward an emerging deal with the federal government to clean up diesel engines and boost electric-vehicle production. “We don’t want to turn back the clock to the 1960s,” says Hentschel. “We aren’t hostile to industry. On the contrary, we want to cooperate with business to modernize the economy.”

Complicated Coalitions

For all the Greens’ pragmatism, some of the party’s national leaders will need convincing, and polls suggest they and Merkel’s bloc may fall short of a combined majority. That could add the Free Democrats to the mix, complicating coalition-building with a party that opposes green-energy subsidies and has euro-skeptic tendencies. “It would fit quite well with Merkel’s style, which generally relies on slowly building a quasi-consensus,” says Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. But “it doesn’t seem like an alliance that would produce a lot of progress for Germany.”

Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Germany’s Complex Election Process

Since 2013, Merkel has governed in an often uneasy alliance with the Social Democrats. This year, her party bloc is exploring other options, opening the CDU’s door to the Greens. After the last election, the two sides held talks on building a coalition, but the effort faltered as liberal Greens and the socially conservative Christian Social Union—the CDU’s more right-wing ally in Bavaria—failed to mesh. Not that the Greens lack experience: With Joschka Fischer as foreign minister, they helped run Germany under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder from 1998 to 2005, and they’re junior partners in nine of the nation’s 16 state governments.

“Of course we want to govern,” says Andrea Lindlohr, the Green deputy caucus chief in Baden-Wuerttemberg. “When you go into government, the classic right-left divides become less important. A coalition with the CDU/CSU wouldn't be a love match.”

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