Izzi Zawartka considers the status of Green parties in a challenging, evolving political environment.
Over the last politically turbulent decade, several of Europe’s traditional establishment parties have suffered significant electoral losses. Their decreasing popularity, evincing voter frustration, and weariness with an outdated order leaves the door open for a rise of new parties and novel approaches. While it is recognised that populists have taken this opportunity to espouse the identity of an alternative to the traditional political right, a lesser known contender may have the potential to pose a similar threat to the establishment left.
Green parties are a recent phenomenon, with their roots in western Europe. Finding their origin in Belgium & Germany in the 1970’s, these groups frame their agenda on the principles of ‘green politics’: social justice, environmentalism, and pacifism. While they often identify with the left, their advocacy for the reform of modern society is paired with a rejection of the current bureaucratic conduct of politics. Therefore, the Greens propose an alternative approach to policy-making, with specific focus on issues such as the environment, minority rights, and civil liberties.
Since their formation, Green Parties have had difficulty extending meaningful influence beyond Western Europe; even there it is too early to say whether or not initial successes will continue into great victories. No Green Party has ever stayed consistently above 20% in the polls, and they represent a mere 38 out of 751 seats in the European Parliament. The Greens, given their suitably modern and progressive approach, should be doing better. They have several important advantages to be noted.
To begin, Green Parties could be capitalising on the systematic decline of centre-left parties across Europe. Coming from a peak in the late 1990s, their loss in popularity can be explained in several ways. James F. Downes and Edward Chan have argued that social democratic parties are running out of ideas to deal with modern economic problems, given their historic focus on the creation of a welfare state now firmly entrenched. In a more immediate sense, inadequate responses to the 2008 economic and ongoing refugee crises further damaged popularity of incumbent centre-left parties. Facing these and other new challenges, especially those posed by globalisation, social democratic parties have fallen out of favour with their constituents, owing to their clumsiness and inflexibility.
In this respect, Greens have an opportunity to highlight the principal qualities that make them an attractive alternative. In contrast to the muddled agenda of the current centre-left, the Greens’ platform is clearer and more comprehensive. Their explicit dedication to openness and transparency is appealing to those frustrated with the corruption of the incumbents. Additionally, with their young and charismatic leaders, these parties maintain an eager, tolerant, and adaptable image, fitting to the values of young urbanites.
Crucially, the Greens can benefit from a future redefined by a new framework of ideas. While economic cleavages have previously dominated political discourse, debates are now increasingly focused on matters such as cultural identity and the environment. This new political divide is suited to competition between polarised views of Green parties and the extreme right; on contemporary topics of globalisation, the environment, migration, and inequality, the Greens offer a clear opposing view to that of right wing groups. This means they are in a position to more fully represent the left, on issues unique to our modern age.
Even now, there are green shoots in sight: over several elections last year, Green parties fared better than expected. The votes of Alliance ‘90/German Greens were doubled in Bavarian state elections and the Belgian Ecolo and Agalev parties captured several districts of Brussels. Astonishingly, Luxembourg’s parliament saw a fifty percent increase of Green MPs in its parliament. Additionally, the incorporation of green policy in multiple resurgent leftist movements, such as Podemos, Le France Insoumise, and Corbyn’s Labour, point to a Green politics in ascendance.
In summary, Green parties have the potential to perform much better than they are. Their modern approach and specific focus on contemporary issues, especially environmental degradation, are well-suited to the new era of politics. In order to solidify their influence, however, these parties will have to work to gain support from a voter base with on average low rates of electoral participation and present their agenda in such a way to successfully attract apathetic citizens and frustrated voters alike.
Green parties in Europe have a large potential to impact the continent’s politics. If they capitalise on all opportunities, acting boldly and with great enthusiasm, the Greens can play a definitive role in the future of the left. Overcoming barriers to entry and competing with establishment parties will not be easy, but against the odds, the Greens will remain a worthy challenger.