The Future of Green Parties
By Colin Raaen*
The rise of Green political parties in Europe is relatively unique when compared to democratic systems in other regions of the world. In European states, such as Germany and Sweden, the Green parties have grown to acquire significant influence within national parliaments and in many cases have been able to force mainstream political parties to give greater consideration to environmental policies. This success, however, has brought into question whether these parties can survive in the long-term, as durability in politics tends to rely on the ability of a party to address multiple issues. Some Green parties have already begun to address more mainstream issues, as a way of consolidating electoral success, although environmental policy remains the core issue of advocacy. Furthermore, Green parties may need to focus more on developing their representation supra-nationally, within the European Parliament, for example, in order to advance their goals.
To assess where the future of Green parties lies, we must first look at where these parties came from. Green parties began to emerge in Europe during the 1970s and increasingly throughout the 1980s. Their main focus at this time was on developing as single-issue parties advocating reform of environmental policy to include greater consideration of clean energy and reducing the use of nuclear power. Many green parties were formed out of earlier movements to promote nuclear disarmament and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, advocating a more pacifist and internationalist foreign policy than that familiar during the Cold War. Green parties were seen to challenge mainstream political systems, implementing a more informal and less structured way of engaging with the public than traditional European parties – for example, being faster to embrace direct action and later on social media.
During the 1990s, many parties responded to poor electoral success with party reform and an assimilation process towards a more orthodox party structure. Along with organisational reform, many also altered their goals and objectives to include issues less related to environmental policy. This process put pressure on the informal nature of green parties. The German Alliance ’90 party probably best illustrates this process of formalisation, as it developed through the 1990s. During this period, the party eliminated term-limits for its party leaders, streamlined its federal executive committee and increased the role of regional party leaders and parliamentary deputies. This resulted, arguably, in a greater willingness from the German political class to consider their views, thus leading to the monumental inclusion of the party into the Red-Green coalition government led by Gerhard Schröder and the Social Democratic Party. Up until this point, the liberal Free Democratic Party had been the kingmaker of German coalition politics and had been included in every coalition, except for periods of grand coalition, since 1945, yet they were ousted in favour of Alliance ’90/the Greens.
Since then, Green parties in Europe have maintained relatively consistent electoral results and representation. Many Green parties have, of course, developed in different ways, with some entering parliament right away with very little pre-parliamentary experience, and others experiencing long pre-parliamentary periods before entering parliament. Similarly, some Green parties have had consistent electoral success whilst others have had relatively weak parliamentary representation.
One way to look at the transformation of Green parties is to consider the extent to which mainstream parties in Europe have acknowledged and developed their environmental policies. In fact, it has been suggested that some mainstream parties actually use green parties, and other single-issue parties, as an electoral tool against their opponents. In 2005, Bonnie M. Meguid proposed a theory, called “adversary strategy”, which contends that some mainstream parties will purposely take an opposing view to a Green party in order to create a divergence between their own ideals and those of the Green party. In doing so, voters are urged to choose between the mainstream party and the Green party based on a single issue, which can alienate voters in a way that reduces the number of votes for an opposing mainstream party. In the 2000 presidential election in the United States, in which Ralph Nader stood as a candidate for the Green Party, for example, the Republican Party went out of their way to make clear their lack of support for environmental issues, thus distancing themselves from Green Party ideals and encouraging voters with strong environmental views to vote for Nader rather than the Republican Party’s real opposition, Al Gore.
It is also important to address the role of Europeanisation and integration and to consider the effect that this may have had in shaping Green parties’ influence in the political system. Green parties have largely shifted their stance on European integration since their creation. Originally, many Green parties had not been in favour of European integration, although this position seems to have softened and they are now generally in favour of an ever closer union. This change in opinion reflects a similar move in left-wing politics, based on an initial distrust of free trade and the single market. Furthermore, green parties tended to view the EU, and Europeanisation, as working against their environmental policy objectives. When the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change began to show what could be achieved by political leadership on an international stage, for example with the Kyoto protocol in 1997, some Green parties begun to turn their attention to Europe and argued for greater reform. In the 1999 European Parliament elections, the Green party coalition called for a more democratic EU with an emphasis on greater transparency and was rewarded with its most successful results to date. In the UK, the Green Party that had campaigned on an anti-EU platform to great success in the 1989 European elections, receiving 15% of the overall vote, abandoned the idea that the UK should exit the Union. Europeanisation of Green parties has also forced them to address mainstream European issues, such as monetary union and sovereignty, on which the parties have generally focused on the role of regional integration as way of strengthening the Union and its environmental policies throughout the world.
Since they were first established, Green parties have gone through a gradual transition from being informal, single-issue associations, to becoming more professional and mainstream political parties. The ascent of Green parties onto the political scene has allowed them to acquire influence, both on a domestic and international stage, causing mainstream parties to pay more attention to, and in some cases even to adopt, Green party environmental policies. Although they do not achieve nearly enough electoral success to be considered a major party family, Green parties do have decent representation in many national parliaments throughout Europe. The most prominent are the Green Party in Sweden, which holds around 7% of the parliamentary seats, and Alliance ’90/The Greens in Germany, which holds around 11% in the Bundestag. At the last count, specific national green parties represent almost 11 million voters across Europe and hold a total of 185 national parliament seats. The European Green party group holds around 8% of European Parliament seats. In the UK, the Green Party has only one MP in the UK parliament, but this is under a first-past-the-post electoral system and nevertheless puts them one ahead of other minority parties, such as UKIP and the BNP. As a result, many Green parties are gradually putting themselves in a position to increase their influence within the European political system in the future.
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Meguid M., Bonnie. “Competition Between Unequals: The Role of Mainstream Party Strategy in Niche Party Success.” American Political Science Review. Volume 99. Issue 3 (2005). 347-359. Online Journal.
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*Colin Raaen is a former research intern at the Stockholm Network