WKRETSCHMANN INFRIATED has a strong claim to be the most powerful green politician in the world. True, the Greens occupy a few small ministries in countries like Austria and New Zealand. But Mr Kretschmann is the undisputed ruler of the state of Baden-Württemberg, an industrial powerhouse in southwest Germany that, with 11 million people, is larger than most EU countries. Ten years ago, voters frightened by the Fukushima nuclear accident and sick from decades of rule under conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) doubled the Greens’ vote, elevating them to power at the head of a left-wing coalition. Even Mr. Kretschmann was surprised. Still, he easily got his re-election in 2016 and may well repeat the feat in Baden-Württemberg’s election on March 14. The way he did this carries lessons for the rest of the country and possibly beyond.
After a brief flirtation with revolutionary communism at university in 1980, Kretschmann found his voice in the moderate “Realo” wing of the newly formed German Green Party. For years, he has nurtured a small but growing audience for his message, articulated in the state legislature, that sustainability and other green topics should be combined with innovation and wealth creation. This put him “well ahead of his time,” says Danyal Bayaz, an environmentalist MP from Baden-Württemberg.
Pro-business centrism is one of the two pillars of Mr. Kretschmann’s appeal today. Happy to call himself a “conservative”, he stresses that climate protection must go hand in hand with economic growth and readily denounces bad ideas emanating from his own camp. “People like it,” says Boris Palmer, the green mayor of Tübingen, a city in Baden-Württemberg. “They don’t want party soldiers, they like politicians interested in their needs.” It has helped the Greens expand beyond their comfort zone, into cities like Stuttgart and Freiburg, to become alumni. CDU voters and Mittelstand exporters, often in remote rural areas.
The second pillar is a well-crafted image that combines the family style of Mr. Kretschmann – a dedicated practitioner and nature lover who speaks with a hokey Swabian accent – with that of the philosopher-king who spices up interviews with Hannah Arendt quotes and Let him know that he spends his summers on the Aegean islands leafing through “The Iliad”. His big tent Politik des Gehörtwerdens, the “policy of being heard”, is an antidote to radicalism that divides. Colleagues describe a patient leader open to new ideas on everything from school reform to artificial intelligence. All of this gives Mr. Kretschmann an aura of a statesman that politicians CDU, who now serves as the junior coalition partner of the Greens in the state, admits it’s extremely difficult to run against.
It’s a powerful combination. Mr Kretschmann has occasionally conducted national popularity polls, although he has no ambition beyond his home country (“Whenever I’m in Berlin I always remember how great it is. beautiful in Baden-Württemberg, ”he once joked). Two thirds of CDU voters in the state say they would vote for him directly if given the chance. Its popularity has inspired a slight cult of personality. In a personalized campaign where the pandemic makes the traditional election campaign impossible, voters must stare at posters of their 72-year-old leader’s amiable face covered with slogans such as: “He thinks about the big picture.”
Yet what should the Greens show for a decade in power? The government of Mr. Kretschmann with the CDU can boast of a strong biodiversity law and an expansion of renewable energy as the atomic type disappears. Yet “given the constraints of the coalition, you won’t find so many concrete achievements,” says Palmer. Take the auto industry, which provides about one in five jobs. Not far from the large Villa Reitzenstein in Stuttgart, in which Mr. Kretschmann directs public affairs, are museums dedicated to Mercedes and Porsche cars, and a square called Daimlerplatz. Mr Kretschmann once said that he looked forward to a weather with fewer cars on German roads. But he was doomed to hug the industry.
Too close, for some. Mr. Kretschmann’s commitment to bringing the sometimes sleepy automakers of his state into the 21st century is genuine. Fearing that Baden-Württemberg could face a fate like that of Detroit, he pushed automakers to take up challenges, such as the switch to electric cars, via a seven-year “strategic dialogue” that began in 2017. But the results are meager. In 2020, Mr Kretschmann disappointed a lot of people by teaming up with the premiers of other oil states to push for subsidies for diesel-powered cars. Some young activists are fed up with Mr. Kretschmann’s warning that they have formed a “Climate List” to contest the election. “The Greens have forgotten their roots,” growls Daniel Wagner, one of his candidates.
Over the years, Mr Kretschmann has clashed with his party on everything from the phasing out of combustion engines to the deportation of failed asylum seekers. For left-wing Greens in other states, the party’s success in Baden-Württemberg may seem like a mixed blessing: why seek a job just to emulate the Tories? Mr Kretschmann replied that power is useless if you leave half of society behind. And as the only green responsible for a state, it carries an inordinate weight in the German federal system. His tendency to present himself as the voice of the party in national debates irritates his colleagues. But it also made a difference, especially in 2019 when Greens in Germany’s upper house, where state officials sit, sharpened a woefully unambitious climate change package.
Don’t scare the horses
Despite all these efforts, Mr Kretschmann’s centrism won the day in the National Party, now firmly in the hands of Realos and preparing to enter government after the general elections in September. The habit of governing has become entrenched among the Greens, who sit in coalition in 11 of the 16 German states. Should they agree to become a junior partner of the CDU at the national level, as polls suggest, they will have to accept painful compromises. Yet if power is no longer the dirty word it once was in some green circles, the party has its Swabian champion to thank. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “A Swabian Success Story”