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Europawahl, männlicher Erstwähler (18) mit Stimmzettel junge Wähler Erstwähler
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U.Baumgarten

Young German activists organize against the far-right

Amien Essif
September 22, 2017

Campaigns across Germany aim to prevent a political shift to the right by courting young voters. The country’s youth - when they do vote - are not shying from populist politics.


Last summer, a dozen young activists met up in Hamburg to answer a question: What can we do in 2017 to stop the rise of right-wing populism in Europe? Months before, a populist movement had led Britons to vote to leave the European Union - a decision known as "Brexit." Even though an overwhelming majority of young voters were against it, many didn't vote. Only a third of 18- to 20-year-olds went to the polls.

The group of Hamburg activists saw in their own country a euroskeptic, anti-immigrant party coming to power - the Alternative for Germany (AfD). So they created a campaign called "Kleiner Fünf" - or "Small Than Five" - to urge voters not to give the far-right party the 5 percent of votes it needs to win representation in the German parliament. Their message is for all eligible voters, but they developed a program to reach a younger audience through YouTube videos and Facebook information campaigns.

"Young people who vote for the first time are not protest-voters like AfD voters," says Paulina Frühlich, co-founder of Kleiner Fünf. "They still have hope."

Read More: What you need to know about Germany's far-right AfD party

Getting out the vote

Kleiner Fünf is one of many campaigns in Germany this year encouraging young people to vote - and vote against right-wing populism. The youth-led organizations "Democracy Needs You" (Demokratie Braucht Dich in German) and "Stop the AfD" (Stoppt die AfD) both formed in the wake of Brexit.

Deutschland Pulse of Europe - Demonstration in München
A group of young women cheer at a pro-European Union rally in Munich, Germany, in MarchImage: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/S. Babbar

The AfD has close ties with the UK Independence Party, which led the Brexit drive, and is not only critical of the European Union but staunchly anti-immigrant as well.

Launched in 2013 as a euroskeptic party, the AfD has rapidly grown in popularity on an anti-refugee.  Its leaders have also made headlines for arguing that Germans should be proud of their soldiers in the Second World War, and that Islam does not belong in Germany. Currently polling at 11 percent, the AfD could very well become the leading opposition party.

"Brexit is a big reason why we started this," says 25-year-old Marie Rosenkranz, project manager of Democracy Needs You. "We saw what happens when the older generations vote more than our generation."

Rosenkranz rebuffs the claim that young voters are to blame for not going to the polls. "We're always on the move unlike retirees who tend to stay in the same place," she told DW. Her pro-EU organization toured Germany together, handing out fliers and holding conversations with young people to encourage them to vote. They also organized a social media campaign to encourage voting by mail-in ballot, posting photos online of German youths abroad dropping their ballots into the mailbox.

"We've had a lot of good conversations in cafes and on the street," says Rosenkranz. "Young people are fans of Europe."

Celebrity appeal

Some well-known artists have used their reputations to reach young German voters. The film star Elyas M’Barek posted a video on his Facebook page, which he teased as a "little motivation for first-time and young voters." In the video, which has been viewed two million times, the message is explicit: "Don’t vote for the AfD."

Actor Elyas M'Barek in an anti-AFD Facebook video
Celebrity actor Elyas M'Barek in a September 18 Facebook video asking first-time voters not to vote for the far-right AfD partyImage: facebook/Elyasbarek

In addition, the award-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans created a series of posters targeting young people with anti-AfD catchphrases such as "Not loving nationalism" and "Sundays are great: for partying and for voting." Every poster has a call to action:  "If you don't vote, you're actively supporting the right-wing nationalists. It helps just to vote".

A 'Brexit effect' in Germany?

Hindering right-wing populism in Germany may not be as easy as getting young people out to the polls. It is true that, as in Britain, Germany's younger voters are underrepresented in elections compared to their older counterparts.

Voters under the age of 30 make up only 15 percent of the electorate. Only 60 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 21 and 25 turned out for the previous federal elections, compared to 80 percent among voters in their 60s. That was the lowest turnout for this early-20s age group in modern German history.

Infografik Wähler in Deutschland Demografie Frauen Männer ENG

Nevertheless, when young voters do go to the polls, they may be just as likely to vote for the AfD as other voters - perhaps even more. Six percent of voters under 30 supported the AfD in the 2013 federal elections, compared to 4 percent of voters in their 60s. If only young voters had voted in 2013, the AfD would have already entered the German parliament.

"We usually see that young people vote more for left-leaning parties, but with the AfD now it’s a little different," says Dr. Aiko Wagner who researches elections and party systems at the Berlin Social Science Center. The 2017 election is only the second federal election for the AfD, and this new-party appeal may be attracting young voters, who are not as influenced by party-affiliation as older voters, explains Wagner.

If activists want to campaign against the AfD, he says, "it doesn’t make much of a difference just to get young people to vote. It's not that simple."

The final stretch

On the Saturday before the election, Kleiner Fünf will distribute rubber wedding rings in Berlin and Hamburg. Mimicking a marriage proposal, they will get down on their knees and ask passers-by to vote on Sunday.

"We aren't going to tell them who to vote for," says Frühlich. "But if they say the AfD, then we’ll definitely have a conversation with them."

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