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Germany

Seniors Remain Influential Despite Gray Panthers' Extinction

Germany's "Gray Panthers" had all but closed down their party doors, after nearly two decades of representing seniors' concerns. The 60-plus crowd, however, isn't vanishing from the political landscape.

Three senior citizens sitting on a park bench, a fourth is next to them in a wheelchair

A new party aimed at fromer Greys members is being planned

Despite the demise of the Grays -- the party which evolved out of the Gray Panthers and is likely to dissolve due to a funding scandal -- German senior citizens are, in fact, likely to remain an ever-increasing force in the country politics.

"Demographic and health developments all point to a situation where seniors will make up a larger and larger portion of the electorate," said Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University.

Those aged 65 and over made up nearly 20 percent of the population -- a percentage that has been steadily growing, according to the German Statistics Office's figures for 2006.

Voter participation also continually increases as people pass the age of 25 then falls slightly when they reach about 65, Niedermayer said.

The power of the gray

Three voting booths with people in them

Older voters can be counted on to continue going to the polls

Germany's 60-plus generation, the last to have lived though World War II, also isn't likely to stop going to the polls, according to Ursula Lenz, the spokeswoman for the German seniors lobby group BAGSO.

"Many seniors say they may not agree with this, that or the other about a party, but go and vote because they lived through a time when that wasn't possible," she said.

But while doing their civic duty, seniors aren't aware of the political power they wield, Niedermayer said.

"If it were to come to a conflict between the young and old, the older people would be able to put the parties that they think better address their concerns in power," he said.

Served by major political parties

Despite the occasional headlines proclaiming "Seniors Ripping Off the Young" as the mass-market tabloid Bild ran on its front page last week, Niedermayer said he didn't expect a generational debate to divide Germans into age-specific camps.

Three older men on a bench

Seniors' political views differ on many issues

"This isn't a danger as long as the major political parties continue addressing seniors' needs," he said.

For now the major parties seem to be doing that. In the last federal election 77 percent of voters over 60 chose either the Social Democrats (SPD) or the Christian Union (CDU/CSU) -- more than any other age bracket.

Seniors are also heavily represented in German parties. People over 60 make up 50 percent more of SPD and CDU/CSU party members than they do among the general population.

Political parties, all of which have organizations dedicated to seniors' issues, will increasingly depend on finding ways to appeal to senior citizens, but it is likely to be a difficult task.

Seniors' varied interests

"The differences between the main parties, especially in the grand coalition, aren't so large," Lenz said, adding that a general political consensus on seniors' topics existed among all Germany's political parties.

Trude Unruh

Trude Unruh, now 83, founded the Grey Panthers in 1989

Other than material interests in seeing pension payments increased and healthcare costs kept down, the diversity of seniors' political concerns is one of the reasons why the Gray party never received a substantial number of votes, Niedermayer added.

"Older citizens do not vote only according to what matters to them as seniors," he said. "Their interests are as varied as in other sections of the electorate."

The Grays' meager 0.4 percent of votes in the 2005 federal election wasn't enough to finish the party, but parliamentary demands to pay back 8.5 million euros ($13.3 million) worth of funding due to suspected donation fraud led the party to disband this month.

The 3,300 party members, however, may find a new home. Former Grays' party deputy head Manfred Albrecht told the Associated Press there were preliminary plans to start a new seniors' party.

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