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First-time voters in Germany consider life after Merkel

September 24, 2021

The 3 million young people who will vote in Germany for the first time ever this Sunday can barely remember a world before Chancellor Angela Merkel. And it seems they are eager for change.

Cornelius, Thurid and Jona will all vote for the first time on Sunday in Germany
Cornelius, Thurid and Jona will all vote for the first time on Sunday in GermanyImage: Lisa Hänel/DW/Privat

Jona, Cornelius and Thurid are three of around 3 million young people in Germany who are allowed to vote in the 2021 German federal election for the very first time. Jona already sent a postal vote, while Thurid and Cornelius will vote in person on Sunday.

"I am very happy that I can finally vote," Cornelius said. "And I am relatively optimistic that the election will change a lot."

The three young voters are typical representatives of their generation: They are well-informed; all of them have read the election programs of their favorite parties. For all of them, climate protection is one of the most important issues. And for as long as they can remember, there has only been one chancellor — Angela Merkel.

"The fact that something new is coming after 16 years of Merkel, that means this is a special election," Cornelius said. When Merkel began her first term in 2005, Jona and Thurid were only 2 years old; Cornelius was four.

All four are full of praise for the outgoing chancellor. She has been a stable force, they said, and a "talented politician" — and apart from anything else, she was simply always there.

"It's a bit weird that she will be gone soon," Thurid said. "It's interesting to have to think about who you want as the next chancellor, and not think about Merkel."

If Merkel were standing for another term, Jona would have even considered voting for her center-right CDU party. "But I can't go along with Armin Laschet," he said, referring to the CDU's candidate to replace Merkel. So Jona voted for the Greens.

16-24 year old voting intention compared with population as a whole in German election
The Greens and the FDP are disproportionately supported by younger voters

Greens and FDP popular with young voters

Looking at the opinion polls, Jona is certainly not the only first-time voter going for the Greens. The "teen spirit" poll conducted by communications agency Fischer-Appelt together with marketing institute Appinio shows that 18.7% of the 1,000 people surveyed between the ages of 16 and 24 want to vote Green — more than for any other party.

Vying for second place, both at around 16%, are the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP). Other polls show that among those voters under 30, the Greens and the FDP are far ahead of all other parties.

"We can see that the FDP and the Greens have put a relatively strong focus on young voters simply through the topics and focus of their election campaigns," political scientist Anne Goldman from the University of Duisburg-Essen said. Two topics above all are deciding factors for these voters: climate protection and digitalization.

"Fridays for Future grew a great deal in the last few years, and it is clear to see that the Greens, who are closest to this movement, are trying to make them central to their campaign," she added.

That has worked for Cornelius. He is involved with Fridays for Future and will vote Green on Sunday.

The Greens seem to have understood that they can reach a treasure trove of potential voters here. They have sent personalized letters to first-time voters, and Cornelius and Jona have also received one. Other parties have also done this, but only the Greens have a central overview of how many they have sent out: around 2 million.

Thurid also thought about voting Green. But now she thinks she will go for the FDP, persuaded by their economic policy. Instead of just calling for more money to be handed out, the party is also concerned with new ways to make money, she says Thurid wants to use her vote to "somewhat oppose the very left-wing economic trend."

But she says she became aware of the FDP because of their skepticism towards the government's coronavirus policies.

"My mother is a geriatric nurse and is not vaccinated. She is really afraid of losing her job. So I've really noticed what effects a compulsory vaccination program could have," she explained. She says she has a high opinion of the FDP for its vehement opposition to compulsory vaccination. Thurid herself is vaccinated, but has talked with her mother for hours about the topic and can at least understand her mother's worries about the vaccine.

Spirit of optimism, but also bogeymen

All three young voters have one belief in common: There should be fundamental change.

"What unites young voters above all is a dissatisfaction with politics, but in a different way to older voters," Jona believes. Young voters are more concerned about the future, he believes, and the election campaigns of the governing parties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, seem to him to be lacking in any real ideas.

Thurid thinks that the Greens and the FDP are also so successful among young people because they represent a democratic alternative.

"A lot of people are fed up with the CDU/SPD teaming up after the last election, and there's a desire for something new, and I think the Greens and FDP are the most likely to convey that as democratic parties. They have modern approaches that are not radical," she said. The Left Party and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) often take positions that are too radical for Thurid.

But especially in eastern Germany, the AfD is popular, particularly among young people. A recent unofficial U-18 election held to gauge sentiment among young people saw the AfD win the most votes in the states of Thuringia and Saxony.

Thurid is familiar with this phenomenon, as she lives in a small town in the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt. Every Sunday, she says, there are AfD demonstrations.

"It's mad how the AfD gets its way and nobody says anything against it," she said. "Even among young people who have right-wing views, which are also passed on by their parents." There are many bogeymen that young people can start believing in as well, she said. "And as a first-time voter, you're impressionable."

It's also striking that many first-time voters gravitate toward minor parties, much more so than the electorate as a whole. In the "teen spirit" survey, more than 23% of respondents said they would tend to vote for a small party.

In Germany, more than 50 parties are competing, including the pan-European Volt Party and the Animal Protection Party. It is likely that the vast majority of these parties will fail to clear the 5% hurdle that is needed to enter the Bundestag. 

Whomever first-time voters choose on Sunday when they go to the polls for the first time, they are a minority among the 60 million who are eligible to vote in Germany. Jona is a little disillusioned by this, and he doubts there will be a "big impact" caused by his age cohort of voters.

Cornelius is more optimistic. He believes that the spirit of optimism emanating from the young is also present in the rest of the population.

"The will to change doesn't just come from us," he said. "I already believe that there is a clear will that something has to change."

Young and without a voice?

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.