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Will Germany's non-voters decide the election outcome?

September 22, 2017

Germany has a huge non-voting population — like most democracies. In 2009, more people didn't vote at all than voted for Merkel's conservatives.

Non-Voters demonstrating in front of the Bundestag
After the 2009 German election, the 'real' numbers were shown: 29 percent for non-voters (Nichtwähler)Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In Germany's 1972 election, voter turnout was 91.1 percent. In the last two parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2013, only 70.8 and then 71.5 percent of citizens exercised their right to vote.

For Manfred Güllner, from the polling company Forsa, this is a disturbing development: "The parties are sticking their fingers in their ears, they don't want to hear that so many people are no longer voting. They don't want to know that only Germany and Portugal have seen such a spike in non-voters since the 1980s," Güllner told DW.

Denmark, Germany's northern neighbor, on the other hand, is a positive example. Güllner says: "Eighty-five percent went to the polls in the last parliamentary elections. Even in the last municipal elections in Denmark, more people voted than in the last national election in Germany in 2013."

On behalf of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Forsa investigated German non-voters. Its results were remarkable - people were asked how they saw themselves, and one common trend among respondents was to reject the idea of being a "non-voter." Many claimed that they truly wanted to vote, but were taking an enforced break, waiting for a time when they could return to the urns.

People who think like this, according to Güllner, are so-called sporadic non-voters: "These people do not want to vote for radical parties, they do not choose AfD, the margins. They want to choose the normal parties." There is the danger that they will not participate in the upcoming elections and thus become permanent non-voters, says Güllner.

Infografik What issues matter to German voters ENG

Comprehensible language

A simple remedy for this would be if politicians used language that was easier to understand. "Non-voters complain, for example, that it is not the grand coalition that we talk about, but the 'Groko' (a shortened form of the German name for grand coalition), and it's not necessary to use the phrase 'R2G' when speaking about a red-red-green coalition (this refers to a coalition of the SPD, Left party and Green party). It's just like this incessant talk of 'hotspots' (the English word has been borrowed, not very accurately, by Germany's political class) when we just mean problem areas."

Read more: A guide to Germany's possible coalitions

Yet Güllner does have a positive example of the same phenomenon. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt always used simple language. When he spoke, Güllner says you got the feeling that "he could explain the world in three sentences."

'Already a foregone conclusion'

Werner Peters has a radical proposal: the long-standing chairman of the Non-Voters' Party thinks that people who don't vote in the election this September should still be represented in the next German parliament. How? Peters says that a number of parliamentarians in the German Bundestag - matching the proportion of the population that don't vote - should be ordinary citizens with no party affiliations whatsoever.

Peters had the idea of founding a "Non-Voters' Party" back in 1998. The Cologne-based philosopher created the party with its paradoxical name - and has stood with it in previous elections.

"Even then the parties were like fossils, especially the CDU (Christian Democratic Union)," Peters reaclls in an interview with DW. "They [the CDU] couldn't get rid of Helmut Kohl, even though it was obvious that he would lose the election."

Now 76, Peters had previously resigned from the CDU after more than two decades of party membership. He wanted to offer frustrated citizens an alternative. "Our demands: more direct democracy, the abolition of the party-line vote, and the limitation of terms in parliament, and we wanted to revive democracy," says Peters.

Peters still hits a nerve with many Germans today. Non-voters are anything but a homogenous group. "On the one hand, there are those who are relatively indifferent and uninterested in politics, and then there are those who are more unpredictable. This group decided the US elections, because Trump was able to bring people who used to say 'what have I got to do with politics' to the voting booths," Peters says.

Infografik Wähler in Deutschland Demografie Frauen Männer ENG

'The system needs to change'

The party founder is especially interested in the unpredictable group: Those who say that the great problems of our society are not being tackled properly and that issues are just being muddled through. This system needs to be changed, but this is not being addressed, Peters believes: "It would be completely irrelevant if I voted for the FDP today, the CDU tomorrow and the SPD the day after. The Left party is too scatterbrained for my taste and I could never vote for the AfD - so I will not vote at all."

He cites the diesel scandal as a current example of the questionable way politicians deal with problems: "The citizens aren't being represented and longer, rather the car companies are. And if we continue to be treated like idiots, these policies will run up against a wall sooner or later. And there's only one way to clearly make this protest, with large numbers choosing not to vote."

Peters' Non-Voters' Party was dissolved in December 2016 after almost 20 years. In the end, there were only eight committed members but in its heyday, the party counted 300 members. But Peters will continue to fight - in September, for the first time, for the abstention vote: "Angela Merkel will be elected, that is quite clear. And that is one of the reasons why abstention makes sense, as the election is already a foregone conclusion."

Peters accepts that by no longer being a voice of opposition he is, in a small way, contributing to Angela Merkel's re-election: "Sure, this woman embodies a certain calm, solidity and stability. But on the other hand she has absolutely no concept of how to move forward. She lives this system, and she does very well in its confines. But it's a case of a one-eyed king in the land of the blind."

Go to our special page to find out all you need to know about the German election on September 24

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.