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When Greens govern

What are the chances of the Greens disappointing their supporters if they get into government? High, if the experience of their sister parties elsewhere in Europe is anything to go by, suggests Joseph Healy

April 21, 2015
7 min read

tara-valleyOver 1,500 people gather at the Hill of Tara in 2007, to take part in a ‘human sculpture’ calling for it to be saved. The Irish Greens allowed a motorway to be built through the site. Photo: Aerial Art by John Quigley/Spectral Q

I was a member of the Green Party for ten years and spent several years on its international committee and attending European Green Party conferences. This allowed me to witness the experience of Greens in power at close range, and how in each case it hugely disappointed both their members and the electorate.

Ireland

The first case was my own country, Ireland, where the Greens entered into the coalition government with Fianna Fáil in 2007 with several ministers and crashed out of it in 2011 with no seats. Several friends are ex-Greens in Ireland and were closely involved in the developments over that period. I attended the Irish Green Party conference in Galway before the election in 2007 and listened to their deputy leader John Gormley excoriate the Fianna Fáil government for their corruption and nepotism. Gormley reeled off a long list of horrific measures that Fianna Fáil had inflicted on the country and promised that the Greens were their sworn enemies. Indeed, their leader at the time, Trevor Sargent, had promised never to serve in a Fianna Fáil government. I wrote an article in 2009 warning of the likely impact of this coalition on the Irish Green party and so it proved to be.

Gormley took over as the new Green Party leader after the election and as the minister for environment, heritage and local government minister in the coalition government. Eamon Ryan, the current leader, became the minister for energy and communications. They respectively sold out the campaigns to save the historic Hill of Tara from a motorway bypass and the farmers and fishermen in County Mayo fighting oil giant Shell in the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign. They also acquiesced to the blasphemy law, leaving Ireland as the only country in Europe with such legislation.

As the more radical members departed and the electorate became more disillusioned, the party was sucked further and further into the maw of the coalition. It ended up supporting the bailout measures for the corrupt Irish banks and signing up to the highest per capita debt payback terms in Europe. Unsurprisingly the election of 2011 left the party with no seats. It is now struggling to return to its pre-2007 levels of support and still has a long way to go.

Czech Republic

The Czech Greens entered a similar Faustian pact with a right-wing party from 2007 to 2009. The fatal fault line in the Czech Republic was not the economy, nor the environment, where the party remained relatively true to its principles, but militarisation and the construction of ‘Star Wars’ missile bases by the US aimed at Russia.

Underlying all this was the fact that the party had been effectively taken over by a right-wing businessman, Martin Bursík, who overawed the membership with promises of funding and improvements in electoral methods. He delivered and the Greens entered government. At the European Green Party conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2008 he argued that the Greens’ natural allies were on the right and that connections with the peace movement were part of the historical baggage that needed to be jettisoned.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic there were massive demonstrations against the bases, backed by thousands of town mayors and councillors, and the position of the Greens came under increasing challenge. Several MPs broke away from Bursík’s leadership and tried to form a new party. Left-wingers in the party, such as Prague councillor Matej Stropnicky, challenged his ideological position but as long as Bursík remained environment minister and the state funding rolled in, they made no progress.

One Austrian Green MP, now an MEP, told me that the European Green Party would issue no criticism of Bursík and the Czech Greens because as long as they were in power the nuclear power station at Temelin on the Austrian frontier would not be activated. This proved to be the case and the fall of the coalition government in 2009 led to the plans for the nuclear plant being taken off ice. The Czech party’s attempt under Bursík to follow the ‘neither left nor right’ mantra popular with many Greens led to the party in fact making a clear ideological lunge to the right. Once again, many activists and voters became disillusioned.

A factor in the Green Party’s rise in the Czech Republic was its newness following the collapse of communism in 1989 and the fact that two decades later it offered what appeared to be a fresh start and a clear distinction from both the discredited Communists and the free-market conservatives. Much of its support was drawn from the youth, particularly students and urban bohemians. Bursík finally resigned from the party leadership in June 2009 and the party lost all six of its seats in parliament in the 2010 election. Stropnicky and others had fought internally for the party to maintain its radical roots but as in Ireland, where councillor Bronwen Maher, former MEP Patricia McKenna and others tried to do likewise, the outcome was victory for the right and political oblivion. As in Ireland the Czech Greens are trying to claw their way back electorally, now with a lot of historical baggage.

France

A third relevant example is that of France, where the French Greens are currently in coalition with François Hollande’s Socialists. The French Greens have long had the reputation of being among the most left-wing green parties in Europe. However, despite the fact that they have not entered a coalition with the right there are similarities with what happened in Ireland and the Czech Republic.

Hollande, who was elected on a promise to oppose austerity and fight unemployment, agreed to an electoral coalition with the Greens. Unlike the Irish and the Czechs, the French Greens had a strong eco-socialist wing. In 2012 Hollande agreed a deal with the party (Europe Ecologie, as it is now named) to progressively shut down 24 nuclear reactors and introduce a carbon tax. The resulting election increased the number of Green MPs and two of them were appointed to Hollande’s cabinet. Many of these were elected as a result of vote transfers from the Socialists under the French electoral system.

Hollande’s subsequent embrace of austerity and the resulting fall in his popularity has proved very problematic for the Greens. As Hollande’s ratings have plunged, they have tried to distance themselves, with both ministers resigning from the cabinet. But the recent vote in the French parliament on austerity measures put forward by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, saw only one Green MP voting against. The French Greens have recently been more critical of the Socialist government’s position on austerity but still remain a part of the coalition. Partly, this is because of the environmental commitments given by Hollande – a consideration that has some resonance with the Czech situation, where similar promises were made. But they are already leaking members to the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) and will struggle to avoid a similar fate to their sister parties.

Green parties in Europe have failed to place themselves firmly on the left and this has meant that they have put down very shallow roots. A new unity between greens and reds has never been more necessary but the traditional Green parties are not providing it.

Joseph Healy was a founder member of Green Left and a Green parliamentary candidate in the 2010 general election. He is now a member of Left Unity.

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