Greens face hard call over chancellor candidate

The Greens have never fared better with their “co-chair” arrangement, with one man and one woman sharing power at the helm. But there can only be on Chancellor. How will the party navigate the inevitable split?

Angela Merkel will step down this fall as German Chancellor, splitting Germany’s conservatives in an open battle for country’s top job (some talk even of a death match). Meanwhile, the Green Party has calmly set April 19 as the day when their chancellor candidate will be announced. For a long time, the conservatives (CDU/CSU) stood for stable unity. But this is no longer the case. The Union is divided; the Greens, united. The timing of the announcement for the Green chancellor candidate is a strategic move designed to underscore precisely this image. Spurred by rising poll numbers, the Greens seem like a new anchor of stability.

A Green chancellor has become a real possibility. The Greens could lead the next coalition government and perhaps even become strongest party. That is, in fact, their goal. “We’re fighting for the historically best Green result ever and to lead the next federal government,” tweeted Michael Kellner, the party’s secretary-general  — and a likely successor for party leadership at some point. So who are the two possible candidates?

Annalena Baerbock is a 40-year-old career politician with a reputation for prudence and diligence. She conveys her messages with a high level of detail. As Member of Parliament from the eastern state of Brandenburg, she gained recognition during Germany’s coal exit negotiations. She is media-savvy and charismatic but lacks government experience. As a former elite trampolinist, national party leader and mother of small children, she knows how to juggle the demands of family matters and high-level politics. If she were the nominee, Baerbock would be the only female candidate in the race — surely an advantage in an election campaign for a successor to the highly popular Angela Merkel. But playing the “gender card” to secure her nomination could likley backfire, which is why Baerbock doesn’t play it.


Robert Habeck started his professional life as a writer, and German media have characterized him as the perfect son-in-law. His job as Energy Transition Minister in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein gave him government experience, and his tenure is generally seen as a success. He gained recognition for finding balanced compromises between fishermen and nature conservationists. The strength of the charismatic 51-year-old is that he can reach people’s hearts – that he expresses fears and doubts – but that also makes him more vulnerable. Both Habeck and Baerbock seem naturally states(wo)manlike. They each avoid polemics against political opponents, they demonstrate unanimity, and they emphasize the big picture. They are popular beyond the party itself.

Under Habeck and Baerbock, the Greens have continued to develop into a progressive, centrist force and a flexible hinge-party: pragmatic, but committed to core issues. The party is more united than it has been for a long time. Public infighting is a thing of the past. Baerbock and Habeck are the strategic center. They are the most powerful leaders the party ever had. The Greens have modernized their internal party structures over the last years. This modernization has allowed them to play out the dual strategy of being a forceful opposition party on the national level while governing in 11 out of 16 states (study).

Luxury problem

But the Greens may have a luxury problem of who to choose as chancellor candidate. Both candidates are suited for the job, I think, despite individual weaknesses (a lack of governing experience versus sometimes talking out of turn). Programmatic differences between the two are hard to spot. So the choice is between personalities. Most important is to find out what a Chancellor candidate means for party leadership: The Greens’ current strength results partly from the dual leadership of Habeck and Baebrock. This strength is in risk of being undermined if one is down-graded. What role will the “losing” party leader play? Expect them to come up a novel view of what leading a government could look like after embracing cooperative leadership for decades.

There is no formal procedure in the party statue of picking a Chancellor candidate. However, the suggestion of the party board next Monday follows the Green Party convention on June 11-13, which will make that final decision. But the convention is expected to follow the leadership’s proposal – no matter how it turns out. It is remarkable, still, that Habeck and Baerbock have said all along they alone will mutually decide who is to run as candidate. The arrangement is unusual for a party like the Greens, which was founded on the principle of grassroots democracy. However, no one has challenged this arrangement, further underlining Baerbock and Habeck’s position of power.

Black-Green rivalry

Polling around 21-23 percent, the Greens are still some five points behind the conservative CDU/CSU but are now their main competitor. Since Black-Green has been the most favored coalition among Germans for soem time now, this rivalry should help both parties mobilize voters beyond their core electorate. Black-Green could turn into a race of who will lead the next government. In such a scenario, Conservatives could attract voters from the FDP and AfD, hoping that the CDU/CSU will take a conservative turn on taxation, economics, and refugee policy once Angela Merkel has left office. Preventing a first-ever Green Chancellor could even mobilize the extreme right to vote for the CDU. The Greens, on the other hand, could attract more votes from the left, such as the SPD, the Leftist Party, and others to make fighting the climate crisis as the next coalition’s number one priority and to ensure that the Conservatives aren’t becoming too strong. Some observers expect two large camps on election day: those who look for stability will vote conservative, while those who want a fresh start will vote green. However, given the conservative leadership battle, the ongoing corruption scandal, and the programmatic exaustion after 15 years of governing, the Union is in disarray. The Greens on the other hand look calm, organized, and well prepared. A new force of stability.

Super election year

Germany’s super election year 2021 could profoundly reshape the country’s political landscape. If you are interested in a preview of the upcoming months, the rise of Green politics, and what the vote might entail for Europe’s biggest economy, click here to view a discussion with Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert (DIW), Sabine von Mering (Brandeis University) and me.

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