Green parties

It was in the “New World” – in Australia – that an environmental issue was first taken to the polls: the United Tasmania Group campaigning against the flooding of Lake Pedder won 3.9% of the vote for the regional assembly.

But it was in Europe that Green Parties hit the global headlines.  Few noticed when Daniel Brelaz was elected to the Swiss Nationalrat in 1979, or when Greens won parliamentary seats in Belgium (1981) and Finland (1983), but when the German Greens won 27 seats in the West German Bundestag in March 1983, the world’s press was on red alert – literally.  Here, in post WWII Germany, was a new political force of indefinable radical views and behaviour; it looked green on the outside, but was it like a water melon - red inside?  Young Germans were ecstatic; here was a party that offered them the chance of refreshing their country’s history through taking responsibility for the future.  But America was aghast and sent their chief correspondents to cover the election.  

The world did not end, however, and the German Greens led the way by entering into power sharing coalitions, first at regional level with leading Green Joschka Fischer sworn in as Minister for Environment and Energy in Hesse in 1985.  Fischer went on to become Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Federal Parliament, when the Greens entered into a governmental coalition with the Social Democratic Party in 1998.   The experience gained helped other Green Parties negotiate and maintain different coalitions and power sharing arrangements at all levels of government.  In Australia, for example, the Greens used their sole balance of power in the Senate (9 senators) and shared balance of power in the Lower House (one MP) to ensure passage of Clean Energy Bills into legislation.

Global greens across the globe: enough difference fast enough?

Thirty years on and there are nearly 300 greens in national parliaments worldwide and 46 in the European Parliament.[i] But given the scale of environmental and social problems are the Green Parties gaining power quickly enough?

Evidence that they are may be found in three places.  First is the direct influence Greens in legislative bodies can have on policies, the Australian example above being one, and Angela Merkel’s 2011 post-Fukushima exit from nuclear power in Germany another.  With 68 seats in the German parliament the anti-nuclear Green Party dieGrünen/Bundis90 regularly polls 13% and Merkel faces a difficult election in 2013.  Second is the general impact Green Parties and the associated Green movement of pressure groups and policy advocates have on public opinion and behaviour.  This is particularly manifest in some communities where Greens have been in local government for two or more decades.  Activities such as saving energy, avoiding waste, providing healthy (and fair traded) food, once viewed as mad fantasy are increasingly normal practice.

Positioning green in the changing political spectrum

The case for Green Parties being in danger of missing their historical mission is, regrettably, somewhat stronger.  Already new generations are impatient with the pace of political change and do not find the green political narrative as convincing as their parents did.  If the job is to get Green ideas into power, then the scale of Green Party influence is not keeping up with the evidence of accelerating trends of unsustainability.  The Pirate Party in Germany, for example, polls nearly 8% (2012), and across Europe, parties offering simplistic and extreme solutions to political problems are gaining votes.  The Occupy movement rejected party politics altogether.

There is little evidence that Green Parties, individually or collectively, appreciate that their destiny lies not as an alternative to left or right political ideologies, but as an alternative to the extremists entering the increasingly chaotic political space.  As the Economist magazine points out, this may happen quickly: “History is littered with once-dominant institutions that were imperceptibly hollowed out and then suddenly collapsed.  Such a tipping point could be near, particularly in Europe.  If so, the landscape of Western politics could suddenly look very unfamiliar.”  (4 August 2012)  

In short, Green Parties are not preparing to succeed big time, so risk being victims of rapid change instead of providing leadership that inspires confidence in difficult times.

The ingredients and the potential are there.  Andy Dobson[ii] sees sufficient similarity between Green Party programmes to argue that there is a green ideology, though former Swedish MEP, Per Gahrton says it is more a ‘green’ way of thinking than adherence to a definable ideology.[iii] This, for example, enables Green MEPs to differ on many topics, including the structure of the EU, but to consistently vote together.  As well as this relative homogeneity of principles and policy, there is a network of Green Foundations around the world, variously providing research, think-tank and practical support.[iv] 

Next for the green movement: a coordinated diaspora?

What happens next, however, depends on whether Green Parties (and the movement?) can follow the example of the international group of mostly men who gathered in 1947 to organise an ‘ideological battle’ for economic liberalism, their campaign capturing the political high ground with the election of Ronald Regan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.  Founded by Friedrich von Hayek as the Mont Pèlerin Society (which still exists) a global network of like-minded people and organisations was established through which to conduct intellectual ‘guerrilla’ warfare (their own description) and to “litter the world with free-market think-tanks”.[v]

This strategy ensured economic liberal ideas colonised air and print media, influential posts (including Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve 1987 – 2006), shaped key policies like the ‘Washington Consensus’ (the economic rules that governed countries receiving loans from the USA or the IMF), and laid the post-1989 ideological ground work through network-sponsored think tanks in east Europe.

Only by adopting a similar, but more energetic and innovative, strategy for capturing the intellectual high ground, and by building confidence that it is safe to vote Green in troubled times will Green Parties make, rather than fall victim to, history. 



Best way to find out what Green Parties are doing an thinking is to use following websites:

  2. [i]

For an academic view see:

  1. Ferdinand Müller-Rommel and Thomas Poguntke (2002) Green Parties in National Government, London: Frank Cass
  2. E Gene Frankland, Paul Lucardine (eds) (2008) Green Parties in Transition: The end of grass-roots democracy? Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of how Green Parties got started try:

  1. Sara Parkin (1989) Green Parties: An international guide London: Heretic Books
  2. Margaret Blakers (ed) (2001) The Global Greens The Australian Greens and the Green Institute
  3. Arnold Cassola & Per Gahrton (eds) (2003) (Twenty Years of the European Greens, 1984-2004 Brussels: European Federation of Green Parties

Also cited:

  1. [ii] Andrew Dobson (2007) Green Political Thought  London:Routledge
  2. [iii] Per Gahrton (ed) (2008) Is there a need for a green ideology? Lund:Cognito
  3. [iv] The Green Directory: A who’s who in Europe … Green political foundations revisited. Brussels: Heinrich Böll Foundation and Green European Foundation
  4. [v] Richard Cockett (1995) Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the economic counter-revolution 1931-83 London:Fontana




August 2012


Leo Reynolds

About the author

Sara Parkin's picture

London, UK

Sara Parkin founded Forum for the Future, along with Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ekins (who is currently Professor of Energy and Environment... (Read more)

Sara Parkin | Timeline for 'Green parties'

Related themes