German politicians struggle with voter apathy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.06.2013
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German politicians struggle with voter apathy

We already know what the biggest bloc will be after September's German elections: the party of non-voters. Two independent studies recently reached the same conclusion. More and more people just aren't bothering to vote.

"Non-voters the strongest force in politics?" - "Voters go on vacation" - "Non-voters are calling democracy into question." These are headlines from recent studies conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation - a group close to Germany's Social Democrats - and by future trends researcher, Horst Opaschowski. They paint a rather gloomy picture of the upcoming elections in Germany. According to Opaschowski's forecasts, non-voters could prove to be the largest party in the September 22 election.

The number of non-voters has more than trebled since the 1970s. In 1973, barely 10 percent of voters refused to cast their vote, but in the last German parliamentary election in 2009 this figure had climbed to almost 30 percent. In recent local elections, it was even higher. In Hamburg, Bremen, North Rhine-Westphalia and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, more than 40 percent didn't go to the polls, while in Schleswig-Holstein more than half the electorate failed to cast a ballot.

Politicians have lost people's trust

"There's been a massive increase in the number of people in Germany who are losing interest in voting," Opaschowski concludes. He comments that the majority of people see politicians as "no longer honest and trustworthy."

Horst W. Opaschowski in Hamburg, March 2013 (c) dpa

Horst Opaschowski says politicans and the people are growing further and further apart

Furthermore, his analysis is that political parties are more interested in hanging on to power than they are in the citizens' welfare, and politicians more interested in their image than in political substance. Opaschowski's research was conducted by doing a representative survey of 1,000 people over the age of 14.

A similar study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) entitled "Non-Voters in Germany" questioned around 3,500 non-voters. Here, too, the majority of those asked said they abstained from voting because they were seriously dissatisfied with what was happening in politics. Other reasons played a very subordinate role, says Dietmar Molthagen, head of empirical social research at the FES.

"But in a way that's good news, too," he said, "because voters can be won back if politicians change what they have to offer." Many people say they will vote again if they see that politics is really doing something about issues that are important to them.

Poor people feel excluded

"Politicians and the people are growing further and further apart," says the trend researcher Opaschowski. "The two groups are living in completely different worlds." According to him, many parties cut themselves off from the people deliberately.

However, it seems we should not fall for the general assumption that young people are the most unlikely to vote. "We come across non-voters of all ages," says Molthagen. "There are a lot of older people among them, especially when you look at those who haven't voted for years."

What is particularly noticeable from the FES study is that many non-voters come from lower social classes. Molthagen points out that this means there is a social imbalance in the election result. "If particular groups don't participate in the vote, obviously their interests are less represented," he says.

Sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann confirms that the tendency among young voters is not to go to the polls. People who are educationally and financially disadvantaged feel excluded from society, he explains. They believe that politics can't do anything to change their personal situation, and so they don't bother to vote.

Sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann in 2010. (Photo: Karlheinz Schindler)

If people feel excluded from society, they don't bother to vote, warns sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann

Hurrelmann says that better education and campaigns, and making sure people are better informed about political issues can make all the difference. "Junior and under-18 elections in conjunction with politics classes have had good results," he said. Children and young people of all nationalities under the age of 18 can vote in these so-called "junior elections." This year, there will be another junior election, held nine days before the general election.

Solving the problem

Experts are warning that an increasing number of non-voters could, in the long term, become a problem for democracy. Dietmar Molthagen from the FES is particularly worried about political leaders with reduced democratic legitimacy. "If only every second person goes to vote, it means a party can be elected by only 13 or 14 percent of the electorate," he says. Molthagen fears that, little by little, low voter turnout could undermine democracy. "You can't rule out populist parties winning frustrated voters over to their side," he says. "If you look around the rest of Europe, in some places they've already succeeded."

Hurrelmann and Opaschowski, however, don't think this is likely to be a problem. "There's no danger of that happening," says Opaschowski. "People nowadays are far too spontaneous. They don't want to commit themselves."

His advice is to use referendums to get voters more actively involved in the decision-making process. At the same time, though, he wants to see voters taking greater responsibility. "The people have to go on the offensive. The politicians can't decide all by themselves."

The demonstrations we are seeing now in Brazil and Turkey are the kind of thing he means. Their slogan is, essentially: "Democracy now, not later!"

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