BERLIN -- If Germany's Greens party had a natural home, it was in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin, a freewheeling zone in the shadow of the now-toppled Wall where immigrants, students, artists and every stripe of anti-establishmentarian found space on the East-West frontier.
The Wall is gone now, replaced by a marker for tourists, and the politics of protest that so defined the Greens and this neighborhood is in the midst of an identity crisis.
The 22-year-old party that called itself a movement for ecology, nonviolence and social justice is plummeting to the point of extinction in opinion polls and struggling to find an electoral identity after more than three years in a coalition government with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats.
Fall elections are looming, and voters, even in strongholds like Kreuzberg, are wondering what the Greens stand for now, particularly after the traditionally pacifist party endorsed the deployment of German troops overseas to support the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Outside the organic food store on Lausitzer Square, once the scene of clashes between anarchists and police, Vera Guels, a lifetime supporter of the Greens in Kreuzberg, fears the exercise of power has transformed her party into a group of pale reformers too cozy with the perks and compromises of high office.
"When a party establishes itself, it ruins itself," said Guels, 44, who runs a landscaping business in the neighborhood where the Greens recorded their highest vote in any district four years ago. "Maybe the Greens just need to disappear" from government.
"They should go back to opposition," agreed Gerlinde Taenzler, 47, an unemployed supporter of the party.
That may be the judgment of the German electorate in September, as opinion polls show the Greens below 5 percent, the cutoff point to enter Parliament under the German system. In Germany, voters choose candidates both at the district level and for national party lists; the Greens party is generally too weak to win at the district level and therefore requires more than 5 percent of the countrywide vote to get into Parliament. It has little room for error, having attracted just 6.7 percent of the vote in the last election.
The Greens, like the Social Democrats, have been hurt by the slumping economy, rising unemployment and the voter weariness that afflicts any party in power.
But political analysts and unhappy party members argue that the party crisis runs deeper than the economics of the moment because the Greens have drifted from their ideological roots without establishing a new definition of what they represent. A moderation in political debate after the Cold War took the edge off issues, such as nuclear weapons, that once defined the Greens. And since they entered the government coalition in 1998, the system they once abhorred appears to have emasculated them. First in Kosovo, and then in Afghanistan, the party backed war, jettisoning one of its founding pillars.
Already, the Greens have suffered key losses in local elections -- most recently in Hamburg, where the drop in the party vote forced out their coalition partner, the Social Democrats, after decades in power.
"They are struggling to find a strategy because they are so uncertain about their true identity," said Juergen Falter, a political scientist at the University of Mainz who is writing a book on the history of the Greens. Falter argues that the party's middle-aged leadership, best represented by 53-year-old Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, has outgrown its radical past but substituted it with a soft, center-left politics that voters can already find in the Social Democrats.
"They risk becoming an adjunct to the Social Democrats, and then voters may well ask themselves, 'What's the point? We already have Social Democrats,' " said Falter.
No recent event searched the Greens' soul more than Germany's reaction to Sept. 11. In a parliamentary maneuver in November, Schroeder forced the Greens to choose between abandoning government or supporting the dispatch of German troops. All but four Green members of Parliament sided with the war effort.
There has always been a struggle within the party between fundamentalists, comfortable only in opposition, and pragmatists, who wanted into the corridors of power. The pragmatists, led by Fischer, now hold sway, and the post-Sept. 11 vote on military action confirmed their ascendance.
"We have made a fundamental decision that we are a reform party," said Fritz Kuhn, a party leader, at a briefing for foreign journalists in Berlin. "The 'conflict' between the leftists and the realists is no longer that decisive."
But voters seem unwilling to reward what internal realists call the party's maturing. Fischer, to be sure, is the most popular politician in the country, but he has not been able to convert his standing into support for his party.
"All the party seems to have right now is the magic of Joschka Fischer," Falter said.
In a historic shift, the Greens last month put Fischer forward as their lead candidate in the fall elections. In previous elections, the Greens, who thought of themselves as a "movement," not a traditional political party, never ran under the banner of a single personality.
The foreign minister, in his new role, has been sounding out themes in an effort to woo voters.
"The issue of 'fondness for children' will play a central part in the campaign," said Fischer, calling for improved day care, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt. "The ability to have children and a career is very important to the younger generation."
But that sounds like so much mush to party members who earned their credentials in street protests against nuclear power and U.S. missiles.
"The leaders of the party want to govern, but I think they need to go back into opposition to refresh themselves," said Wolf-Dieter Hasenclever, a founder of the Greens who resigned from the party in November. "The soul of the party is gone."
The new moderate outlook found one of its most decisive expressions in Kreuzberg. In the last national elections, Hans-Christian Stroebele, the Greens candidate for the Kreuzberg constituency, got 29.6 percent of the vote, the highest of any Green party member in Germany.
Last month, Stroebele, 61, a veteran of the country's radical politics, was dumped from the party list for the coming election after he voted against deploying German troops to Afghanistan. He said he is disillusioned and angry.
"The Greens are a party of the peace movement, and in our party program in 1998 we gave a clear no to participation in wars," Stroebele said in an interview at his parliamentary office.
"The attractiveness of the party because we do things differently has been lost," he said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company