Tapping mounting concern in Europe about climate change, especially among young people, ‘Die Gruenen’ won 20.5% of the German vote in May’s European Parliament elections, their best-ever result.
Their success has caused convulsions in Merkel’s fragile coalition of conservatives and centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who have dominated German politics since World War Two.
“This is in no way just a protest vote or a hoovering-up of Social Democrat (SPD) votes, it’s a longer-term trend,” said Heinrich Oberreuter, a politics professor at Passau University.
“The advantage for the Greens is they own the issue of climate change which is a long-term problem.”
Merkel has lost the status she enjoyed as “Climate Chancellor” for pushing global leaders to address climate change, and the SPD’s green credentials have been tarnished by close ties to the coal industry.
Hitting 27-29% in opinion polls in June, the Greens became Germany’s strongest party, spawning headlines about popular co-leader Robert Habeck becoming the chancellor.
A pro-European party that welcomed refugees in the 2015 migrant crisis, it wants a total switch to renewable energy, an end to the combustion engine and higher taxes on SUVs.
The chances of a snap election before 2021 have increased since the European vote when the Greens pushed the SPD into third place.
In turmoil, with ratings near all-time lows, the SPD may quit its loveless coalition with Merkel by the end of the year.
Polls suggest the Greens would be big winners in an election.
One option for national government would be a conservative-greens coalition, albeit without Merkel who, after 14 years leading Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, says this is her last term.
But radically different positions on energy, tax cuts and migration would pose challenges for such an alliance.
“(It) would need to direct its focus and available financial resources to climate protection and the energy transition,” said Deutsche Bank in a research note. “Citizens and corporates cannot hope for major tax relief.”
However, the Greens may prefer a left alliance.
In a May state election in Bremen, they emerged as kingmaker, but joined hands with the SPD and radical left instead of the conservatives, who had won most votes.
The Greens have won over urban professionals by embracing social issues such as soaring rents in cities, and the leadership duo of scruffy-looking but media-friendly Habeck and less charismatic Annalena Baerbock, is also popular.
“They have a pragmatic, rational political style and so far are acting wisely and keeping internal differences quiet,” said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa pollster.
Habeck last month overtook Merkel to become Germany’s most popular politician.
A novelist and children’s writer, he is the likelier candidate for the top job, said Guellner.
He and Baerbock, an ex-trampoline competitor who studied international law, brush off questions about their ambitions but acknowledge the pressure is on.
“We have awakened hopes that must be fulfilled. Everyone knows we must deliver,” Habeck said after the European election.
On the plus side, they have something of a track record.
In government, the Greens helped usher in a nuclear phase-out and bottle deposits to promote recycling, and they share power in nine of Germany’s 16 states.
Yet the road to the chancellery is long.