Harvard Political Review:It’s Not Easy Being Green - The Environmentalist Parties | Rwanda
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Harvard Political Review:It’s Not Easy Being Green - The Environmentalist Parties

Created by the author Aidan Scully
Created by the author Aidan Scully

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. This sentiment, outlined in Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit, has seemingly been the manifesto of politicians throughout history who view institutions as merely instruments for their own personal gain. But political parties are more than an extension of their leader’s popularity. They are vibrant organizations of thousands, sometimes millions, of people united behind a common vision, armed with the unique ability to radically transform their society.

What is the rise of Julius Caesar in the Roman Republic without the electoral triumph of his Populares over the Optimates? World War II without the NSDAP in Germany and the Social Party in Italy? The invasion of Iraq without two parties willing to be complicit in constructing a new imperialism?

Political parties are defining the modern era, both as reflections and directors of public sentiment. In the past few decades, electoral societies have been remade by a number of global trends in the nature of political parties: big-tent centralist parties are changing electoral rules to cement their authority, minority interest and regionalist parties are rising in national legislatures, self-described socialist parties are moving to the center, and far-right nationalists are finding a wide base for their authoritarian policies. The purpose of this column is to highlight and break down these trends, and hopefully gain insight into the future of electoral democracy.

The International Rise of the Greens

In recent months, one trend more than almost any other has taken the international spotlight, largely thanks to the 2021 German federal elections. For a number of weeks in early 2021, the Greens in Germany polled higher than every other party in Germany. Its 40-year-old leader, Annalena Baerbock, seemed set to become Germany’s next Chancellor. Though the Greens ultimately finished third in the election, they won 118 seats in the 736-seat Bundestag, and are set to join the new government coalition.

Germany, however, is just one recent example of the electoral successes that this international movement has enjoyed upon decades of cultivation by environmentalists. The world is beginning to see that green parties are more than just single-issue countercultural factions. Their deliberate grassroots organizing, steadfast commitment to democratic processes, and emphasis on self-determination for all people have allowed the movement to prosper in a diverse array of societies and electoral systems. The green movement’s success is built to last, and as a united ideological force, they are set to reshape international political discourse for decades to come.

Internationally, green parties are a relatively new phenomenon. Green parties were founded in New Zealand in 1972 and the United States in 1984, with more recent additions only coming in countries like Rwanda in 2009 and South Korea in 2012. Their international coordination is also relatively young; the Global Greens, an international alliance of national green parties, was founded in 2001, with continental divisions dating back only to 2004 in Europe, 2005 in the Asia-Pacific, and 2010 in Africa. The relative youth of the movement may be, in some cases, a disadvantage. In Germany, the Greens were only the sixth largest party until the country’s recent elections. Most green parties have yet to join a government coalition, if they’ve joined a national legislature at all.

These green parties, however, arose as grassroots movements. Where they are flourishing, they are flourishing because of the sheer force of their organizing and campaigning. Green mobilizing often begins locally, with subnational bodies seeing more prominent green representation in both proportional electoral systems, like Germany, and first-past-the-post systems, like the United States and UK. Even as these parties act locally, however, they think globally, and are united by common views. And to the greens, sustainability doesn’t mean just fighting for the climate. It means fighting for the future. In this sense, the 2001 charter of the Global Greens serves less as a manifesto, and more as a reflection of the views of its members, which guide the way to a more equitable world.

The Environmentalist Platform

Green parties around the world have provided a necessary democratic counterweight to the rising forces of authoritarianism. The green parties of the United States and Canada call for electoral reform in their first-past-the-post systems, which have blocked them from power. This call for democratic reform is universal among the greens, whether in Australia, where political discussion is largely open, or Rwanda, where advocating for democracy led to the suspected assassination of Democratic Green Party Vice President André Kagwa Rwisereka in 2010. Though Rwandan activists face a much greater physical threat than Australian ones, their commitment remains just as steadfast, a testament to the universal impact of their values.

Another key flank of the green parties’ platform is equitable representation. Their commitment to gender parity is realized in green co-leadership in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Germany, among others. The greens are also fostering the growth of a vocal youth faction: Frank Habineza was 32 when he founded the Democratic Green Party, and Chlöe Swarbrick was 23 when she was elected to the New Zealand House of Representatives.

The greens’ advocacy extends beyond their own parties as well, into solidarity networks with minority activist and regionalist groups in favor of self-determination. The New Zealand Greens support greater Māori self-determination, the Scotland Greens have placed themselves firmly in the pro-independence camp, and internationally, the Green Party has been the largest party in the United States to unapologetically condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Green parties from the Netherlands to Kenya advocate for disarmament and pacifism around the world.

This international perspective is aided by the unique decentralization of the green movement. While some political internationals, most notably the International Democratic Union, have been ideologically (and literally) dominated by white Anglophone leaders, the lack of a major British or American green party has enabled the development of a true cosmopolitan alliance.

This is not to say that the Global Greens is an exhaustive or entirely unified group. The international alliance includes the pro-death penalty PVEM in Mexico, but notably not the Farmers and Greens Union, which served as the senior coalition partner in the 2016-2020 Lithuanian government. That being said, the brand of green politics exemplified in the Global Greens’ 2001 charter, ranging from climate issues to social justice, labor solidarity, and electoral reform, is distinct in its ubiquity among the green parties of the world.

The Future of Environmentalism

Annalena Baerbock was only the beginning. As polarization deepens, especially in North America and Western Europe, third parties are growing in prominence, and in many countries, the most legitimate left-of-center third party is a green party. Thus, as green parties enter the spotlight, they become set to play kingmaker with their coalition partners, as in Germany, where the Greens now hold legitimate bargaining power in their coalition talks with Olaf Scholz’s SDP. Similarly, in Scotland, when the Scottish National Party fell one seat shy of a majority in early 2021, the Greens joined them to create a pro-independence majority. Before that, the Green Party in Ireland played kingmaker in the other direction, lending their support to a center-right three-party coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in 2020.

A large part of the green parties’ efficacy as coalition partners comes from their interest in joining a government coalition; in exchange for key climate protection provisions, green parties have proven themselves capable and willing coalition partners to parties from the far-left to the center-right. And green parties don’t need to be the senior partner in a government coalition in order to fundamentally shift the government’s priorities. In Ireland, the Green Party enabled the creation of a government with twelve seats. In Scotland, they did it with eight. 

These patterns would seem to imply that green party successes in the near future in kingmaking positions can be most expected in “2+” systems, where two major parties jut up against several minor parties represented in the legislature. This makes countries like Australia especially primed for a rise in green representation. There, the opposition Labor Party currently leads the Liberal-National coalition in the polls, but an insurgent Green Party, currently polling at over 10%, could place themselves in a position to demand significant climate concessions in order to form a government after the country’s next elections in 2022. 

Green parties around the world exist in a relatively small capacity, but the greens did not exist as a political movement even five decades ago. The rapid rise of a unified international (and internationalist) political force is currently remaking and will continue to remake the global order. And even this small capacity has proven vital, from the kingmaker agreements of Scotland and Germany to Rwanda, where in 2018 the Democratic Green Party became the first opposition party ever to win legislative seats under President Paul Kagame.

The greens have big plans, but they realize that the evolving and expanding dangers posed by climate change mean that they will not have generations to accomplish them. To the greens, time is of the essence, and through their international alliance, time just may be on their side.

Source: It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Environmentalist Parties - Harvard Political Review (harvardpolitics.com)

Created by the author Aidan Scully