Katharina Schulze in front of a green background. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.
At 34 years old, Katharina Schulze does not fit the stereotypical mold of a Bavarian politician. She is young, dynamic, and a self-described feminist, not to mention a member of the Green Party. Although one might picture an older, male, Christian Social Union (CSU) politician representing one of Germany’s most conservative states, Schulze, the energetic co-leader of the Bavarian Greens, is shaking up that image.
On September 24th Schulze came to campus under the auspices of a BMW Center-sponsored event, “A Coffee Chat on the Politics of Climate Action.” She discussed the rise of the Green Party in Bavaria, her decision to become active in political life, and the mobilization of society, including those who do not traditionally vote Green, around the implementation of environmentally conscious policies.
Schulze spoke with great pride about the success of the Greens in Bavaria, highlighting their 17.6% of the vote in the 2018 regional election – the equivalent of 38 seats. The strong result robbed the CSU of the outright majority it had enjoyed for the better part of five decades; they claimed just 85 seats out of the Landtag’s 205 total. Schulze attributed the Greens’ success to “giving courage instead of spreading fear.”
It is a message that resonated throughout Schulze’s talk, especially as she reflected on her own decision to enter political life. Schulze grew up as an activist, organizing against the far right in her hometown and working on environmental campaigns. But it was not until an opportunity to volunteer in Michigan – on the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama – that she decided to enter Bavarian politics. Schulze credits the experience with inspiring her, witnessing first-hand the impact of a campaign that paints a positive future.
Schulze even learned some new political tactics to bring back to Germany. She described her first experience going door-to-door to speak with voters. Hesitant at first, Schulze reflected that “getting a personal connection with potential voters is key.” The opportunity “to listen, to talk,” she continued, is essential and, in fact, is now an initiative she is implementing among Bavarian Greens.
It is within this broader work of connecting with voters that Schulze wants to bridge political communities. She describes grassroots activists and parliamentarians as being disconnected, with each unit working in its own sphere. In order to change the “big picture,” however, Schulze believes that these groups must work together. To have an impact beyond one’s hometown, one’s state, or one’s country, the activists should play a role in legislation, the traditional realm of politicians.
Schulze described her work bridging this divide in order to implement policies that protect the environment. One such example was working with civil society to hold the “save the bees” referendum, calling for better and greener protection of agricultural land. With over 1.7 million signatures, the campaign prompted the Bavarian state government to agree to implement the referendum.
Schulze also discussed the Greens’ push for a Mobilitätsgarantie, a ‘mobility guarantee.’ This initiative, stemming from concerns raised by constituents, would ensure that every town in Bavaria is connected to a public transport system between certain hours. In the big cities, Schulze explained, residents want to reduce emissions, lamenting that there are too many cars and too few bike lanes. In the countryside, however, a car is essential and residents are quick to point out that busses, the ‘greener’ alternative, are often infrequent. The Mobilitätsgarantie’s marriage between demand and environmental protection, according to Schulze, represents an attempt to think “outside of the box” and provide “a solution to the problems and wishes from society.”
Such an approach, however, is not uniform across German politics. Schulze discussed her concerns regarding the far right Alternative für Deutschland and the imperative of counteracting the AfD’s rise. Here Schulze was emphatic, asserting that “people in power,” whether in government or in the private sector, are “never allowed” to use the language of the far right to win votes. That, Schulze explained, would harm the public discourse and shift the conversation in a negative direction.
What Schulze is happy to emulate from another political party, however, is the CSU’s culture of “big speeches in beer tents.” She wants to reach out beyond urban centers, the Greens’ strongest areas, to rural communities, traditionally the core of CSU voters. Schulze and her party, therefore, are appealing to Bavarians’ affinity with the environment – the blue sky and rolling hills and mountains, as she described it. It’s a natural fit for a party with environmental protection at its core. With Schulze at the helm, the future for Bavaria’s Greens looks bright.