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Are Germany's youth a new political force?

Tom Allinson
May 27, 2019

Greta Thunberg, "Fridays for Future," and a popular YouTuber pushed climate change to the top of the European elections agenda in Germany. The young voted in droves and want to change more than the political landscape.

Green Europe flag
Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Fassbender

In an era where students take to the streets every Friday to protest against climate change, young voters have precipitated a seismic shift in German politics.

Sunday's European Parliament elections saw the Green Party catapulted to second place in the German vote for the first time ever in a nationwide poll. 

Tallying 20.5%, the Greens almost doubled their last European election count. Among younger voters, that figure was even higher. According to polling group Forschungsgruppe Wahl, 33% of under-30s voted Green.

The overall result delivered a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat bloc (CDU/CSU) and their junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD). Just 13% of the electorate in that age group cast their vote for the CDU, with 10% opting for the SPD.

That divide was mirrored by almost exactly the opposite among voters over 60, pointing to a widening generational gap.

Read more: German EU election results ramp up pressure on Merkel's coalition

Policy for the future

Fielding younger candidates, like Ska Keller, may have appealed to younger voters, but the substantial differences were to be found in policy.

"The old parties haven't really been doing politics for young people for years and the young people are really frustrated about it," said Matthias Rohrer, a researcher and project coordinator at the Institute for Youth Cultural Research in Hamburg.

"The Greens are the only party at the moment which is doing a kind of politics for young people that looks to the future," he told DW.

Students have led the way on environmental debate with the recent Fridays for Future climate strikes, and many feel disaffected by what they see as inertia from the status quo parties.

"The EUVote19 shows we are not only taking the climate crisis to the streets but also the polling stations," prominent German activist Luisa Neubauer tweeted. "That should give everyone who smirked, shoulder-to-shoulder, at 'youth engagement' in recent months something to think about."

Read moreThe psychology behind climate inaction: How to beat the 'doom barrier'

YouTube campaign

Immediately before the poll a campaign by prominent German YouTube personalities called for young voters to boycott the main parties, leading some commentators to put the shift in votes down to the influence of new media.

"We know that YouTubers are really important to young people, they are the new stars," Rohrer told DW. But he stressed that climate change was already an important issue on young people's radar.

One analysis by DW before the election bore that out, noting that for many young people the European Union project was not about preventing a past, but enabling a future.

Even mock EU elections across German high schools in previous weeks saw a third of the tens of thousands who took part stump for the Greens, indicating climate change will be a dominant issue for a long time to come.

But status quo parties' engagement with social media is still lacking, according to political analyst Martin Fuchs. Social networks are not a "press release dispatch station," Fuchs told DW. "It's about dialogue; it's about participation and also about transparency."

Class a factor

Fuchs also emphasized the class dimension of the youth Green vote. With many of the Fridays for Future students coming from schools with an emphasis on academia, they also reflect their well-educated families in their Green voting preferences, Fuchs argued.

At the same time, constituents with low education levels tended to be less inclined to vote, he said. 

Reaching both those demographics is vital to the traditional centrist parties that claim to govern for "the little people" as well, Fuchs said.

Read more: EU election: Turnout highest in 20 years

A divided political landscape

For some analysts, the historic youth vote this weekend signals a more fractured future political landscape, with the stability of the CDU and the SPD as part of the so-called "grand coalition" in doubt.

But whether young voters who distrust politics will remain engaged with that system depends on whether the Greens can keep their promises, according to Rohrer.

If they can't, "young people will say 'OK, these politicians are not doing anything for us either and we will not trust them.' This is a huge job for the Greens."

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