GERMANY’S NEW GENERATION OF VOTERS – PUPILS VS PENSIONERS

GEORGE DUNLEAVY

NOVEMBER 2017

Over the past few weeks, a political furore has gripped Germany, as the nation braced itself for die Wahl - the election of a new government on 24th September. Unsurprisingly, Angela Merkel (leader of the Christian Democratic Union) won her fourth term as Chancellor. This didn’t surprise the press, it didn’t surprise the Germans, and it didn’t surprise the polls, which correctly predicted that the SDP would follow in second, with the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland coming third. Taking place on a swelteringly hot Sunday, when many Germans would much rather have been at home instead of patiently lining up outside polling stations, it was a vote tempered by fears of terrorism, the immigration crisis, and the looming problems faced by a strained European Union. These are issues at the national level, yet, was the whole of Germany represented in the voter turnout?

Simply put, young Germans aren’t voting. As with everything German, this trend can be summarised by one useful word - Politikverdrossenheit. Translated as “disenchantment with politics”, it is a feeling commonly seen in the younger generation. For example, 80% of 60-70 year olds voted in the 2013 Bundestagswahl (the lower-house election), whilst only 60% of 21-25 year olds voted. This may not sound like a huge difference, but when taken into consideration that less than 10 million people under the age of 30 had the chance to vote, whilst for those over 60 this figure was more than double, it’s a significant number. This lack of interest in politics among younger people is one possible reason why the AfD is the first overtly nationalist party to sit in the Reichstag since the 1960s, and why the CDU won their lowest share of the vote since 1949. In summary, too many young people feel as if their voices are unheard, that they alone will make no difference, and that Merkel’s win was inevitable. A clear trend amongst many of the parties’ mandates was a call for greater help for pensioners, while policies concerning younger people were notably absent – the clear reason being that while pensioners can vote, pupils cannot.

Yet, there is some evidence that this trend is beginning to reverse with the next generation of voters. Undoubtedly, the best way to rouse an interest in politics is the most obvious - by starting early. This is the case in Erich-Kästner Gymnasium, Cologne, the secondary school where I work as a foreign language assistant. Here, the school gave a voice to the unheard, the unrepresented, and those unable to vote: the under 18s. It was an enormous success, with 86.3% of the pupils taking part, and an article appearing on the Tagesschau online website. Although this vote mirrored the real one quite similarly, with the CDU coming first (27.5%) followed by the SDP (22.6%), it came as no surprise to many that the third most popular party was the liberal Bündnis90/Die Grünen party (21.4%), whose policies focusing on climate change, equality and immigration are much more important to young people. Meanwhile, the AfD came sixth.

By starting to practice voting at an earlier age, it makes the process altogether less daunting and foreign, and invites pupils to have conversations about politics outside of the classroom. 
Holding an underage vote may not be a revolutionary idea – in fact, under 18 votes have been held across Germany since 1996, and campaigners have fought to lower the voting age to 16 for years, nevertheless, it shows that schools in Germany are becoming ever more willing to try and promote political discussion in the new generation. At a time when many first-time voters cannot even remember who came before Merkel, and with many simply referring to the familiar and reliable matriarch as ‘Mutter’ (mother) it becomes ever more important to remind pupils that they have the power to choose, and that soon, they too will have the power to decide who governs them.

This desire to engage the next generation became the focus of the October edition of NEON, a popular monthly magazine in Germany whose target audience consists of well educated, liberal 18-30 year olds. Inside, it typically contains articles about pop culture, fashion and relationships, but in the run up to the Bundestagswahl it became more politically inclined, joining the campaign “MitMir90Prozent”, a campaign which aims to restore the voter turnout to 90% like in the 1970s. In typically millennial style, NEON encouraged readers to share, tweet, and post statuses of them having voted, using the hashtag #mitmir90prozent, and rewarding those with the most likes with an exclusive t-shirt. Capitalist intentions aside, this campaign arguably helped keep the vote a popular topic on social media, reminding others that it is important to stand up for your beliefs, to exercise your human rights and vote.

Despite these efforts, the issue of young people feeling disenfranchised by politics is not just specific to Germany, rather it is a growing trend in many Western nations, as more and more young people view politicians as dishonest, or leading lives completely different to their own. Indeed, a fitting comparison may be made to the European Referendum in the UK, where although 64% of people aged 18-24 went to the polls, a staggering 90% of over-65s also voted, with many of them voting to leave.

In light of these results, it is easy for some older Germans to claim that Germany’s youth are idle, preferring to lazily show their political leanings from behind a keyboard rather than with feet on the street. However, in the lead-up to the vote, demonstrations were seen across Germany as young, liberal Germans protested against the right-wing AfD party in an effort to keep racism out of the Reichstag. Indeed, in many cities stickers proclaiming “FCK AFD” could be seen covering up the party’s flyers, and some Germans even sported t-shirts with the slogan. Images were splashed across newspapers, demonstrators were interviewed on the news, and everybody had an opinion on the political climate. Out of all these deciding factors, it could be argued that perhaps the biggest incentive for young people to vote wasn’t an online campaign developed by media moguls, nor was it by inviting more political discussion into the classroom – rather, the most unifying movement came from the right-wing threatening what the youth value most: equality.

The 2017 Bundestagswahl had too many influences and is too large to simply sum up its results with one neat flourish – certainly, Germany’s aging population had a direct consequence on who gained power in Berlin. Yes, many of the country’s young people feel isolated by the main parties and yes, Germany’s politics are following the current trend of becoming more right-wing, but that is not the say that these trends must continue. With 3 million more Germans turning 18 every year and thus able to vote, it will only be a matter of time before more of the nation’s opinions are represented more equally and the shifts of power reflect Germany’s shifting society.