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German election demographics

Ian Bateson | Jens Thurau
September 10, 2021

Germany's electorate is aging and shrinking. What will that mean for the German parliament in the post-Merkel era?

bird's eye view of crowd of people
The German electorate is ageing and shrinkingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Assanimoghaddam

About 60.4 million people are eligible to vote in Germany on September 26 — that's a drop of 1.3 million on the last general election four years ago. And more than half of the electorate is over the age of 50.

This shift is part of a broader demographic change in Germany that continues to see more deaths than births in the country. But while migration has helped to stabilize Germany's population, many of those migrants are not able to vote. As a result, Germany's electorate is becoming older and smaller.  

Infografik Bevölkerungsvorausberechnung für Deutschland 2020 EN

An aging voter base 

As the population ages, there's a shift in the generational balance of power in elections. In West Germany's 1987 national election 23% of voters were under the age of 30 and 26% were over 60. For the 2021 election, the office of the Federal Returning Officer expects the number of voters under 30 to fall to under 15% and those over 60 to rise above 38%. 

This change has further shifted influence to baby boomers — the generation born after World War II that is in its 60s today. And this trend will continue, as younger Germans have fewer children. 

In addition, turnout is traditionally much higher among older voters. At the previous general election in 2017, 76% of voters over 70 turned out to vote and 81% of voters were in their 60s. Turnout for voters aged 21 to 24, meanwhile stood at only 67%. 

 Older and younger Germans also tend to have different voting behaviors: "Older voters are more likely to have a long-term party affiliation than younger voters. This often developed in earlier phases of life," Nico Siegel, managing director of the Infratest dimap polling institute in Berlin, tells DW. 

Older voters in Germany tend to vote for the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, Germany's historic big tent parties, and are less likely to shift their allegiance.


Chart showing the shift in age distribution among voters in Germany since 1972

East-West divide 

 More than 30 years after unification, there are still differences in how Germans in the east and west vote. The center-right Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP), and the Greens draw most of their support from the west of the country. 

The communist Left Party and the far-right AfD, however, draw most of their support from the east, the territory of the former communist German Democratic Republic, which is less densely populated—with just 12.5 million residents of the country's total 83.2 million.  

 Support for political parties appears to be influenced the most by income levels. Voters for the CDU/CSU, SPD, and especially the Greens and FDP are generally above the total median income. SPD voters are generally around the median, and supporters of the Left and the AfD generally earn below the median income, many of whom are based in east Germany and regions that have been affected by deindustrialization. 

The Greens perform best in urban areas with a young, well-educated population. The Greens have traditionally won a large percentage of the youth vote: At the 2019 European parliament election, they won 34% support from Germany's under 24-year-olds. 

But even during the Greens' brief surge over the summer, they failed to make major inroads in the east. In June, 26% of those surveyed in western Germany said they'd vote for the Greens compared with just 12 % in eastern Germany, according to pollster Forsa.

How do German elections work?

 Men and women

There are 31.2 million women and 29.2 million men eligible to vote in the 2021 election. Overall, voter turnout in federal elections is the same for men and women, but for the over 70-year-olds voter turnout among men is significantly higher than among women. As to party preferences, the CDU/CSU parties and the Greens received a larger share of the female than the male vote in the most recent federal elections, while twice as many men as women voted for the AfD.

Chart showing the increase of the non-German population in Germany

Residents who can't vote 

Despite an aging population and deaths exceeding births, Germany's population has so far remained largely stable thanks to net migration. But many of those migrants are not able to vote in national elections because they are not German citizens.  

While EU citizens registered in Germany are able to vote in local elections, nearly 10 million people living in Germany — nearly one in eight of the population — are excluded from voting in the general election because they do not hold German citizenship. In cosmopolitan Berlin that number is even higher as nearly a quarter of the German capital's population does not hold a German passport.  

Many foreigners choose not to become German citizens even once they meet residency requirements because the naturalization process requires most to renounce their previous citizenship.

Young Germans fighting for climate agenda

Age, priorities, and climate change 

Age is also an important factor when it comes to prioritizing political issues. Climate change has been found to be the most pressing topic for young voters in Germany. For older voters that does not seem to be the case, according to a survey by the Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). Of those over the age of 65, 60% said they would not let the climate and nature conservation interests of younger generations influence their voting decision.

NABU President Jörg-Andreas Krüger called the results of the survey shocking. "We know from other surveys that climate and environmental protection are among the most important issues for the Bundestag elections," he told broadcaster ntv. The consequences of climate change "will have to be dealt with above all by our children and grandchildren." 

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.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau
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