Green Parties in National Governments: From Protest to Acquiescence?



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Green Parties in National Governments: 

From Protest to Acquiescence? 

 

 

 



 

 

 



Thomas Poguntke 

 

 



 

 

 



 

 

 



Keele European Parties Research Unit  

(KEPRU) 


 

 Working Paper 9

 



 

 

 



© Thomas Poguntke, 2001 

 

 



ISSN 1475-1569 

ISBN 1-899488-34-0 

 

 

KEPRU Working Papers are published by: 



 

School of Politics, International Relations and the Environment (SPIRE) 

Keele University 

Staffs 


ST5 5BG, UK 

 

tel +44 (0)1782 58 4177/3088/3452 



fax +44 (0)1782 58 3592 

www.keele.ac.uk/depts/spire/ 

 

Editor: Professor Thomas Poguntke (t.poguntke@keele.ac.uk) 



 

KEPRU Working Papers are available via SPIRE’s website. 

 

 

Launched in September 2000, the Keele European Parties Research Unit (KEPRU) was the 



first research grouping of its kind in the UK. It brings together the hitherto largely independent 

work of Keele researchers focusing on European political parties, and aims: 

 

•  to facilitate its members' engagement in high-quality academic research, individually, 



collectively in the Unit and in collaboration with cognate research groups and individuals 

in the UK and abroad; 

•  to hold regular conferences, workshops, seminars and guest lectures on topics related to 

European political parties; 

•  to publish a series of parties-related research papers by scholars from Keele and 

elsewhere; 

•  to expand postgraduate training in the study of political parties, principally through Keele's 

MA in Parties and Elections and the multinational PhD summer school, with which its 

members are closely involved; 

•  to constitute a source of expertise on European parties and party politics for media and 

other interests. 

 

The Unit shares the broader aims of the Keele European Research Centre, of which it is a 



part. KERC comprises staff and postgraduates at Keele who are actively conducting research 

into the politics of remaking and integrating Europe. 

 

Convenor KEPRU: Dr Kurt Richard Luther (r.luther@keele.ac.uk) 



 

 

The author is Professor of Political Science at the School of Politics, International 



Relations and the Environment (SPIRE) at Keele University.


Thomas Poguntke 

 



Abstract* 

 

The comparative analysis of the record of Green parties in national governments shows that 



they have had only limit impact on national policy. No doubt, the march through the 

institutions has changed the marchers more than the institutions. Furthermore, the Green 

parties are ill placed to wield much blackmailing power in coalition politics. Still, much 

depends on their skill to exploit a rather limited room for manoeuvre in order to implement 

reform and attract sufficient electoral support. The record is, however, very mixed. The 

example of the Finnish Greens shows that Green parties can thrive in government, while the 

German Greens have suffered badly at the polls. 

 

 



Introduction

1

 

 

Arguably, the degree of attention Green parties have attracted across publics and the global 



academic community alike far exceeds their real political impact. About 20 years after the 

first Green party deputies were elected to national parliaments in Western Europe (Rootes, 

1997; Richardson & Rootes, 1995; Müller-Rommel, 1990, Müller-Rommel, 1993), some 

finally reached the highest echelons of power, that is, national governments. An important 

reason why it took them much longer than many other new parties (Mair, 2001: 106) may be 

that many green activists did not really think that national governments were the real loci of 

power. Governments and parliaments were believed to lack the power to address the most 

urgent issues relevant for the survival of mankind like pollution, the nuclear arms race, and 

the expansion of nuclear energy production. Then, why try to get into government? While 

parliamentary representation would provide a suitable forum for making green ideas and 

demands known to a wider public, participation in government would at best change very 

little and, at worst, merely serve to legitimise the continuation of the Old Politics of growth, 

militarism, exploitation of the Third World and pollution (Doherty & de Geus, 1996; 

Poguntke, 1993). 

                                                           

* chapter draft for: Green Parties in National Governments, Special Issue of Environmental Politics

ed. by Ferdinand Müller-Rommel and Thomas Poguntke 

 

1



  

Obviously, this concluding chapter draws heavily on the evidence provided by the country chapters. 

This will normally not be annotated. 



Thomas Poguntke 

 



While it is not the purpose of this concluding chapter to analyse these debates again, it is 

nevertheless useful to recall their intensity – and some may say far-sightedness – when trying 

to assess what the Greens have achieved in government. In other words, how much have 

Greens in government been able to change the course of national politics and how much has 

governmental incumbency changed the Greens? Conclusive answers are premature, of course, 

not least since we are dealing with a very recent phenomenon and the Greens may well 

improve their performance. Or they may come to the conclusion that their more radical 

supporters were, after all, right and that there is a real difference between being ‘in 

government’ and being ‘in power’. 

 

Nevertheless, a systematic comparison of the governmental record of Green parties in 



Belgium, Finland, France, Germany and Italy can provide tentative answers to these 

questions. An obvious point of departure for our analysis is provided in the comparison of 

their paths to power, which may have exposed individual Green parties to substantially 

different institutional pressures to streamline their party structures and moderate ideological 

appeal. Once in power, the format of national party systems and the type of coalition may 

account for any substantial variation in their strategy within government and their 

concomitant policy achievements. Finally, what were the electoral payoffs of joining 

government? Did Green parties suffer at the polls, and could they maintain their links with the 

movements?  

 

 



Paths to Power  

 

Governmental incumbency on a lower level of the political system provides parties with 

valuable experience for their role in national government. Not all Green parties have been 

equally well prepared to meet the challenges of national government. Nor have they had equal 

chances of preparing themselves, because the institutional make-up of individual countries 

differs substantially. To be sure, all parties have experienced the opportunities and constraints 

of being in local government to a greater or lesser extent. However, local politics is not 

politicised to the same extent as regional or national government. Frequently, personal 

contacts and reputations may be more important than party affiliation or ideology, and the 

small number of activists in a local party branch may have rendered many formal provisions 




Thomas Poguntke 

of grass roots democracy either superfluous or simply impractical (Poguntke, 1994). 



Consequently, experience in local executives will normally not make parties fit for national 

government. The exigencies of regional government, on the contrary, resemble those of 

national governmental responsibility. We would therefore expect that parties would enter 

national government well prepared if they previously have held power at this intermediate 

level. 

 

Yet, experience in regional government did not leave the German and Italian Greens better 



prepared for taking on the challenges of national government. Arguably, the German Greens 

should have been most familiar with handling the levers of executive power. After all, 

German federalism provides a unique opportunity structure for new parties to acquire 

governmental experience, at the intermediate level of governance provided in a truly federal 

system. However, the party certainly did not have a smooth start and felt the need to reform 

its party structures twice (!) shortly after joining federal government in order to create a more 

efficient leadership structure that would (hopefully) provide the necessary institutional 

framework for co-ordinating party, parliamentary party and Green members of government 

(Raschke, 2001: 40-55). Another indication of how unprepared the Greens were upon entering 

government was the debate as to whether or not Green members of government should be 

allowed to maintain their parliamentary seats. While combining a cabinet post with a 

parliamentary mandate would violate the Green principle of separating office and mandate, 

the debate over this issue reflected a profound misunderstanding about the mechanics of party 

government in a parliamentary system (Lijphart, 1992; Verney, 1992); revealingly, the 

example of French semi-presidentialism was frequently used in this debate.  

 

Probably even more telling than the party’s inability to enter government with organisational 



structures suited for governing was the fact that the Green Party’s basic programme dated 

back to 1980. By 1998 it could at best serve as a source of entertaining or sometimes even 

grotesque quotations from the period when Green programmatic statements usually called for 

maximal solutions to be achieved over a minimal period of time. The basic programme, to 

give but one example, still called for the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact - the 

latter having been achieved without much contribution by the German Greens, one is tempted 

to add (Poguntke, 1993). It would be unfair, of course, not to mention that the Greens had 

modernised their programmes over the years by drafting a series of election manifestos and 

special programmes. However, the absence of an up-to-date basic programme, whose revision 



Thomas Poguntke 

had been delayed repeatedly in order to maintain the truce between factions, is indicative of 



the lack of reflection upon the role and function of a party in national government. 

 

Similarly, the Italian Greens seem to have been unable to draw consistent conclusions from 



their experience in regional government. After all, their participation in national government 

resembles a roller coaster ride between conflictual and consensual strategies within 

government, accompanied by similarly sharp turns in their approach to party organisation. 

This culminated in the 1999 re-launch of the party while it was still in government. 

 

Experience in regional government is, however, but one important factor that may leave 



parties better prepared for national government. Equally important are parliamentary 

experience and, above all, parliamentary strength (see introductory chapter). Only parties that 

have had sizeable parliamentary delegations over a considerable period of time can hope to 

have acquired sufficient familiarity and expertise with the intricacies of national politics. Size 

is a particularly relevant variable here as politics is highly specialised and a small number of 

MPs simply would be overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks concomitant with modern 

parliamentary politics and the number of policy areas that need to be covered. In opposition, a 

small party may simply resort to concentrating on its core themes. Once in government, such 

self-limitation becomes untenable and may produce considerable problems. The uneven 

record of the Italian Greens appears less surprising from this perspective, while the Belgian, 

Finnish and German Greens should have entered national government with a sufficient 

number of politicians familiar with a wide range of policy areas and the nuts and bolts of 

national politics (at least with regard to parliamentary politics). 

 

 



Organisational Change and Incumbency  

 

Grass roots democracy has been the hallmark of Green parties ever since they slowly (and 

sometimes painfully) grew out of the new social movements and established themselves as 

political parties. It was as much a normative concept aimed at reforming representative 

democracy as it was intended to be a safeguard against losing touch with the movements and 

becoming an established party (Frankland & Schoonmaker, 1992; Poguntke, 1989; Poguntke, 

1993: 34-41). Moving from protest politics towards government meant that Green parties 

experienced a gradual shift of the relative importance of different relevant environments 




Thomas Poguntke 

(Panebianco, 1988: 12). While the movements remained important to mobilisation and 



ideological inspiration, an increasingly electoral (and eventually governmental) orientation 

meant that other relevant environments had to be given more attention. In other words, Green 

parties had to adapt to a changing environment (Harmel & Janda, 1982: 11; Katz & Mair, 

1992: 9), which was changing not least because they had chosen to play the game of electoral 

politics. 

 

When analysing organisational change within Green parties on the path to power, two 

complementary patterns are identifiable. On the one hand, parties decide to adapt their 

structure to systemic constraints because they anticipate the need for centralisation should 

they eventually enter national government. On the other, they reform their organisation after 

joining government because they quickly realise that their ‘reaction time’ has been drastically 

reduced and they need more centralised leadership structures.  

 

Anticipatory adaptation was widespread among successful European Green parties. The 



Italian Greens, for example, abolished collective leadership in 1993, at a time when the entire 

Italian party system was undergoing a fundamental transformation (Bull & Rhodes, 1997; 

Newell & Bull, 1997; Morlino, 1998). The Flemish AGALEV strengthened its leadership 

after the experience of negotiations over entering government in 1991, and even the 

organisationally conservative German Greens introduced a ‘Land council’ as their co-

ordinating body after their electoral defeat in the Bundestag elections of 1990 when they lost 

all their West German seats. However, virtually all Green parties experienced a further need 

to streamline their party structure after they had entered national government. As mentioned 

already, even parties which have had substantial experience with regional government (like 

the German and Italian Greens) realised that being in national government is an entirely 

different ball game. To a greater or lesser extent, all parties share the somewhat sobering 

experience that whatever was left of grass roots democracy was hard to sustain under the 

pressures of participation in national government. Probably the most telling example of 

institutional constraints is that of the Finnish Greens who found it unsustainable not to allow 

their party chairperson to take up a post in government in a country where these positions are 

traditionally combined. Yet grass roots democracy was not abandoned totally. ECOLO and 

the German Greens still maintain collective leadership and, while AGALEV allows ministers 

to hold party office, this is still very restricted (if highly disputed) in the German Green Party. 

 



Thomas Poguntke 

Equally significant as these abrupt changes were the gradual processes that resulted from 



adapting to the new role as a party of government (Harmel & Janda, 1994: 275). Increased 

media exposure, the frequent need for quick decisions, the constraints of coalition politics and 

the increased resources that come with holding ministerial posts enhanced the power of party 

elites (and particularly members of government) at the expense of the rank-and-file. 

Consistently, linkages between new social movements and Green parties have played a 

secondary role once the latter were admitted to government. While the Italian Greens actively 

tried to reconnect with their extra-parliamentary roots towards the end of their term in 

government, party-movement relationships were not always easy. Military involvement in the 

Balkans was one of the major bones of contention in Italy and Germany, and the conflict over 

the transports of nuclear waste in Germany led to a passionate confrontation between a Green 

Minister for Environment and local protest groups trying to block those transports. At the 

same time, however, there have been many examples when Green members of government 

used their connections to the movements as a substitute for their lack of access to expertise 

and support from within the government apparatus. 

 

 

 Power within Government?  

 

Greens in government means Greens in coalition government. Not only is coalition 



government the dominant mode of party government in democracies, but Green parties can 

only expect to play a relatively minor role in coalition government since their growth has had 

clear limits everywhere. However, as the example of the German FDP illustrates (Poguntke, 

1999), small parties may be capable of achieving disproportionate power, depending on the 

format of the party system and the nature of the coalition. 

 

The power of a party within a coalition largely depends on its capacity to blackmail its 



coalition partners. First and foremost, this presupposes that the survival of government is at 

stake should the party decide to leave government. When assessing the governmental power 

of a party, our first criterion is therefore whether or not it is indispensable for the survival of 

government. However, while a particular coalition may not survive the exit of a small party 

like the Greens, the major coalition partner(s) may have attractive alternatives to which they 

can turn. While the German Greens, for example, were clearly needed for the survival of the 

first red-green federal government, they were in no position to remove Gerhard Schröder from 



Thomas Poguntke 

the Chancellery. After all, he could have turned to the FDP, or even the Christian Democrats, 



instead.  

 

Likewise, the credibility of a small party’s threat to leave government depends on the range of 



its own available options. Again, Greens are in a uncomfortable strategic position. In three out 

of five countries, they are clearly part of the Left, in two cases even locked into an electoral 

alliance. Whereas coalition formulae follow a less clear-cut left-right logic in Belgium and 

Finland, they are still highly unlikely to side exclusively with the Right. In other words, Green 

parties suffer from a strategic disadvantage in that they are not pivotal parties that can turn to 

either side. On the contrary, they are clearly part of the left camp, maybe even adding to a bi-

polar pattern of party competition and coalition formation in several European countries 

(Mair, 2001). 

 

Arguably, the Belgian Greens were in a particularly strong position, because AGALEV was 



an indispensable coalition partner for the Flemish government and their exit would most 

likely have removed one of the larger coalition partners from power. Given the unique linkage 

between regional and federal coalitions, this clearly provided the Greens with a reasonably 

strong position within government. However the German Greens, frequently dubbed ‘the 

most powerful Green party’ in Western Europe, found themselves, as mentioned above, in a 

less than comfortable position. Modest policy achievements clearly reflect this. 

 

From the perspective of blackmailing power, being a junior partner in an oversized coalition 



is certainly the least comfortable position to be in (Laver & Schofield, 1990: 85; Sartori, 

1976: 122-25). The experience of the Greens in France, Italy, and Finland shows, however, 

that a purely numerical approach to evaluating the power of coalition partners is myopic. The 

examples demonstrate that the bargaining position within a coalition is not the sole power 

resource for a smaller coalition partner. Connecting to new social movements, appealing to 

public opinion, or simply implementing existing legislation are ways to achieve substantial 

policy goals in a situation where no credible exit option is available. After all, their position 

might not have been so much different from that of other green parties in government: given 

their unambiguous anchorage in the Left, even in a minimum winning coalition, exit could 

only mean opposition – hardly an attractive option after 20 years on the road to power.  

 



Thomas Poguntke 

Last but not least an additional complication needs mentioning; the Italian and French Greens 



came to power as partners in an electoral alliance. Given the uncertain knowledge about the 

‘real’ electoral strength of each alliance partner that inevitably accompanies such 

arrangements, this may actually enhance the bargaining position of a smaller party within an 

alliance. After all, the larger parties can never be entirely sure whether it had not been the 

additional momentum that was provided by a small party that eventually tipped the balance in 

favour of their majority. 

 

Overall, Green parties have been in a relatively unfavourable strategic position when they 



entered national governments for the first time. With the partial exception of the Flemish 

AGLEV, they were (numerically) not essential for keeping the other coalition partners in 

power. Arguably, much depended on how skilfully they exploited the structurally rather 

limited opportunities government would offer them. Again, the record is a mixed one. 

 

 

Strategies in Government and Policy Impact 



 

Next to deciding on the governmental programme, choosing portfolios is the most 

fundamental strategic decision upon entering government - albeit a highly constrained one, 

because it may involve clashes with coalition partners who claim the same ministry. 

Controlling the apex of the executive power responsible for a certain policy area gives a party 

the prerogative of formulating policy initiatives in this field, and it enables it to control and 

enforce the implementation of existing legislation. From this perspective, choosing the 

Environment portfolio was an obvious choice for all Green parties although it considerably 

limited their scope for broadening their appeal beyond environmental issues. To be sure, none 

of these ministries was restricted to environmental protection in a narrow sense. However, 

when looking at the policy areas which were covered by Green ministers, it was only the 

German Greens who managed to obtain a so-called ‘classical’  portfolio, the Ministry for 

Foreign Affairs. Yet, another pattern is discernible. Green parties have attempted to expand 

into policy areas which can be regarded as natural extensions of  ecological politics like 

Health and Agriculture, the latter now fashionably renamed in Italy and Germany as ‘Ministry 

for Consumer Protection’. All parties attempted to shed their image of being a single-issue 

party. The Italian Greens made the most decisive attempt when they decided to trade the 



Thomas Poguntke 

Ministry for the Environment for two other ministries (Agriculture, Community Policy) in the 



short-lived Amato government. 

 

Clearly, selecting portfolios means choosing policy areas which will become (or remain) 



strongly associated with the Greens in the public mind. Equally important for a party’s public 

image is, however, its general approach towards governing. Within the strategic constraints 

that have been discussed above, Green parties could still have chosen a conflictual approach 

that would have conveyed the message that they were, despite being in government, still 

calling for a more fundamental transformation of politics and policy. Somewhat surprisingly, 

none of the five Green parties has attempted such a double strategy. By and large, Green 

parties have been co-operative partners in government. The attempt of the leader of the Italian 

Greens, Carlo Ripa di Meana, to heighten the public profile of his party by publicly criticising 

coalition partners was soon met with strong disapproval from his own ranks. Eventually, the 

conflict led to his own exodus from the Greens and to the election of a party leader who was 

committed to a co-operative approach. 

 

While the Greens decided to play by the rules and adopt a constructive approach to coalition 



government, this did not leave them without significant policy impact. It is in keeping with 

their rather limited blackmail potential that their most noticeable achievements are in policy 

areas that do not touch upon the core of vested socio-economic interests. All parties have had 

some success in modernising some of their country’s legislation related to a libertarian 

agenda. More rights for illegal immigrants, an improved legal status for gay and lesbian 

couples, or a more liberal approach towards asylum seekers are relatively low-cost projects, 

and it is precisely here where the Greens scored points. The picture is less convincing when it 

comes to ecological tax reform or the single most important issue for Green parties -  nuclear 

power. While it is hardly an exaggeration to consider the conflict over nuclear power the 

essential launch pad for most Western European Green parties, their success in this policy 

area, which touches so much upon their core identity, has been very limited. Unsurprisingly, 

the French Greens achieved next to nothing in this respect, while their Finnish friends stopped 

a further expansion of nuclear energy but without a definite change of national policy. The 

German red-green government agreed on phasing out nuclear energy over two or three 

decades without providing a definite date as to when the last nuclear power station will have 

to be shut downCompared to the original Green slogan of the early 1980s, which called for 




Thomas Poguntke 

10 


an immediate halt to all nuclear power generation in Germany, this is hardly a convincing 

victory.  

 

Much Green success, however, does not meet the eye immediately. Given the considerable 



discretionary power of European administrations, much could be achieved by simply 

enforcing laws that already exist. Italy is a particularly telling example for this strategy which 

concentrated, often with the active support of experts from the movements, on implementing 

legislation that is already on the statute book but is not enforced seriously. Likewise, the 

French Greens could substantially increase the manpower and financial resources of the 

Ministry for the Environment. The experience of German Greens in Land governments is 

another case in point. In many policy arenas, federal law takes precedence over Land 

legislation, but the administration is left to the Länder, where Green ministers of the 

environment could achieve much without conspicuous victories (Lees, 1999: 179-81). The 

attempt of Green Land ministers to exploit their administrative discretion to further their 

causes has at times led to conflicts with the federal minister responsible for the same policy 

area. Confrontations between Green Land Ministers of the Environment and their Christian 

Democratic colleagues in Bonn gained much public attention and tended to end with an 

instruction by the federal minister which forced the reluctant Land minister to carry out 

federal policies. Obviously, being in federal government has also meant considerably more 

freedom of manoeuvre for Green Land ministers – an aspect that must not be forgotten when 

assessing the achievements of Green participation in national government. 

 

 




Thomas Poguntke 

11 


Voters and Movement Activists: Equally Disappointed? 

 

Given the lack of conspicuous success, particularly in the core area of nuclear power, a degree 



of disillusionment among Green voters may have been unavoidable. On the other hand, many 

studies have shown over the years that Green voters tended to be reformist and appreciative of 

the inherent limitations of governmental participation – not least because all Greens entered 

local governments during their years of electoral growth. This would suggest continued voter 

support for Green parties in government. Such contradictory expectations seem to be matched 

by inconclusive evidence when looking at how the Greens have fared after entering national 

governments. However, exactly what evidence is there?  

 

The electoral effects of incumbency are notoriously difficult to disentangle. This is the classic 



problem of an ‘over-determined outcome’ in that many other independent variables that have 

no relation to the fact that the party has just joined government may account for a change in a 

party’s electoral fortune (Müller & Strom, 2000: 27; Rüdig & Franklin, 2000). Our analysis is 

complicated by the fact that in some cases no national election has been held after the Greens 

joined government. Hence, there is no reliable standard of comparison. Survey results are 

equally problematic because they tend to report a ‘mid-term effect’, which means that 

governing parties usually experience a slump in their poll ratings halfway through their 

legislative term. Since only the Finnish Greens have entered a second term of office, no 

meaningful data for comparison exist in the other countries. Local, regional or European 

elections have been held in all countries after the Greens have joined national governments, 

and even though there are obvious problems of comparison involved here too, they can be 

used in an attempt to gauge the electoral effects of incumbency. 

 

Overall, the picture is inconclusive. Those who have maintained that Green parties in national 



government were bound to lose support because they would inevitably disappoint (or even 

betray) the hopes and aspirations of their supporters have been proven wrong. The Finnish 

Greens managed to increase their share of the vote and were returned to government with an 

additional ministry for the first two years of the new government. The Italian Greens 

experienced both the worst European election result in their history and good returns in local 

and regional elections though their ‘true’ electoral strength in the 2001 national elections is 

hard to determine because of the complications of the electoral systems which forces parties 

into electoral alliances. The Belgian and French Greens have performed reasonably well at the 




Thomas Poguntke 

12 


polls since they joined government, but the real test will be the next general election. This 

leaves us with the German Greens, who have suffered dramatic defeats at every single Land 

election since entering the national coalition with the SPD. To be sure, the extent of their 

decline in the polls tends to be inflated by the fact that these results are compared to a phase 

in German electoral politics when the Greens were considered to be something like the 

leading opposition party while the SPD was in shambles. Nevertheless, even when these 

distortions are taken into account, there is unambiguous evidence that the Greens have been 

penalised for entering national government.  

 

Although evidence is still very patchy, the German Greens seem to represent almost a deviant 



case in that their record is so clearly negative. One possible explanation is that expectations 

were highest in a situation when a Green party was the sole (albeit not indispensable) 

coalition partner and when the new government represented – for the first time in the Federal 

Republic’s history – a complete turnover of government.  

 

It may be for these reasons that the German Greens suffered most from a strategic situation 



that is the inevitable consequence of joining national government, which (to a greater or lesser 

extent) has been the same for all parties considered in this volume. Incumbency has put Green 

parties at loggerheads with their own core constituency. Given the inevitably slow pace of 

policy change in national politics (frequently involving EU-wide changes), movement 

activists are bound to be disappointed. By their very nature, those who are active in new 

social movements tend to be single-issue oriented and call for fast and radical change. This is 

the very antithesis to national coalition government constrained by European-wide 

regulations. Ironically, taking over the Ministry of the Environment is probably the most 

problematic (yet virtually inevitable) choice for a Green party because it involves the largest 

potential for confrontations with the very core of the Green constituency. 

 

Again, the German example is instructive here. The dilemma of being a party of government 



was epitomised by the conflict over the transport of nuclear waste that led to a massive 

mobilisation of protest in Germany. Unenthusiastically committed to a policy of gradually 

phasing out nuclear energy production, Green politicians found themselves confronted by 

their formerly most loyal allies, the activists of the anti-nuclear movement, which is the 

nucleus of the ecology movement and the ‘birthplace’ of the Green party. Another highly 

conflictual issue for Green parties has been the conflict over the involvement of their 




Thomas Poguntke 

13 


countries in the Kosovo conflict, which touched upon the second element of Green identity, 

that is, their strong roots in the movement against the deployment of intermediate range 

nuclear missiles in the early 1980s. Although only parts of these movements were outright 

pacifist, acceptance of the Kosovo mission nevertheless represented a dramatic departure 

from previously held Green convictions that the use of military force should not be a means of 

foreign policy. 

 

Inevitably, government incumbency required acceptance of the constraints of domestic and 



international policy-making even if this meant alienating a considerable portion of committed 

movement activists who no longer regarded the Greens as an adequate and trustworthy 

mouthpiece for their concerns and therefore withdrew their electoral support. One obvious 

reaction to this strategic dilemma was to broaden their appeal. All Green parties have 

attempted to free themselves from the image of a single-issue party and to acquire 

competence in other policy areas, not least by trying to occupy ‘promising’ portfolios like 

consumer protection. While this may pay off in the medium or long term, immediate electoral 

rewards are unlikely, because voters’ perceptions of parties change very slowly. The almost 

universal weakness of parties on the Left when it comes to deciding who is to be trusted in 

economic policies is a case in point. Furthermore, there is a danger of neglecting Green core 

competence by trying too hard to become a party concerned with a broader range of themes. 

After all, the only unmistakably Green issue is the concern with ecological politics, which 

goes beyond the  mere concern with environmental protection now common place in modern 

democracies. Neglecting to emphasise what is distinct about the Green approach to the 

environment may lead to the electorally highly damaging feeling among the electorate that the 

Greens are no longer needed. The alternative option - ‘reconnecting’ with the movements - 

has proven hardly more promising. After all, a posture of ‘opposition in government’ is barely 

tenable except for parties that hold the balance of power – a favourable but rare strategic 

position that has so far eluded the Greens everywhere. 

 

In the end, Green party power within national coalition governments (and hence their 



electoral success) rests primarily on the skilful exploitation of a rather limited room for 

manoeuvre below the threshold of threatening or even exercising the exit option. Given the 

format of the respective party systems, normally this could only mean return to opposition on 

the radical fringes of the party system, including reconnecting with the movements. While 

this may win back some of the voters lost in the process of moderation, others, who are more 



Thomas Poguntke 

14 


moderately inclined, may defect instead. Obviously, self-limitation to opposition is hardly a 

viable and promising strategy for the majority of Green party activists. Instead, they may find 

that their performance in government (and at the polls) can be improved by treading a thin 

line between loyal co-operation within government and making it clear that Green policy 

objectives go far beyond the rather limited reforms which are possible under the constraints of 

coalition government.  

 

 

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Document Outline

  • Abstract*
  • Introduction
  • Strategies in Government and Policy Impact


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