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Why are young German voters abandoning the Greens?

June 13, 2024

The increased youth vote for the climate-skeptic far right in the EU elections has been combined with plummeting support for the pro-climate Greens party.

three people front an election party crowd and look up at results on the screen
Concerned faces on EU election night, including German Greens lead candidate Terry Reintke (center) Image: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

European Parliament elections in early June saw a sharp shift to the far right, and away from liberal, left and pro-climate parties.

The anti-immigrant, euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party emerged from the elections with the second largest German representation in Europe.

Some 16% of all young voters aged 16 to 24 voted for AfD, around three times as many as five years ago — despite scandals surrounding alleged plans by some AfD politicians to expel millions of migrants from Germany that led to mass protests.

Only 11% of this cohort voted for the Greens, who are part of Germany's ruling federal coalition. That's a 23% reduction compared to the last election in 2019 when the voting age was still 18.

And yet a 2023 survey by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and the federal German Environment Agency (UBA) noted that eight out of 10 people aged between 14 and 22 in Germany consider climate protection to be important.

Why then have so many young Germans turned their backs on the Greens after their major 2019 European electoral success?

Greens polling badly ahead of EU elections

Declining enthusiasm for climate and the environment

One reason for this retreat is that security and migration are bigger election issues at present than climate and the environment, according to Matthias Jung, a researcher with "Forschungsgruppe Wahlen," a German election research institute.

He told DW the importance of climate protection has been devalued across all age groups since its 2019 peak when the Greens became a big political force. Compounding these shifting priorities is the alienation of some voters from a formerly pacifist Greens party that is now one of the "most persistent advocates of military support for Ukraine," noted Jung.  

Nonetheless, the environment ministry survey of political opinions among youth — "Future? Ask young people - 2023" —  shows climate and environmental protection are still a priority for this age group, even if they rank behind issues like education, healthcare, social justice, inflation and the cost of living.

Yet the importance of the environment and climate protection to young voters is not reflected in voting behavior.

Sebastian Koos, professor of sociology and social movements at the University of Konstanz, said current economic and political crises are forcing the climate movement to fight for the attention of "young people who are looking for guidance."

Small parties outperform as AfD targets young people via TikTok

According to Berlin-based political research institute, Infratest dimap, smaller parties such as pro-European Volt or the Animal Welfare Party attracted 28% of the vote among 16 to 24-year-olds, indicating disaffection with established parties.

Founded in 2017, Volt has made climate neutrality central to its platform, and wants the EU to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 instead of 2050. According to Jung, the party, which now has three seats in the European Parliament, performed way above expectations when it won almost 8% of the under-30 vote.

Meanwhile, the hard-right AfD has targeted young voters through social media campaigns — especially on TikTok and Instagram — like no other German party.

Despite controversies that have caused Tik Tok to block some AfD videos ,  the party has struck a chord with young people with emotive and easy-to-understand messages.

Far-right AfD strong in eastern Germany, among young voters

Dissatisfaction with the traffic light coalition

At the same time, the traffic light government made up of the Free Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens is struggling in many areas. A ruling by the Germany's constitutional court to limit national debt has created a billion-euro hole in the climate protection budget.

"I am very disappointed with the traffic light policy and I don't think it's just me, but my whole generation, because they were left behind," says 19-year-old Samira Ghandour, an activist with the youth climate movement, Fridays For Future. She has just voted for the first time in European Elections.

The fact that many young voters opted for micro-parties that are also committed to human rights, women's rights, climate protection and a pluralistic society gives her hope.

For Aurélien Saussay, assistant professor at the London School of Economics, green parties are currently failing to explain to people that climate reforms do not impact standards of living or result in higher costs.

He cited the controversial heating law in Germany whereby heat pumps that are replacing oil or gas heating will save both on emissions and energy bills. 

The law, however, was badly implemented and was accused of being unfair, added the European politics specialist. This led to "fierce opposition" because the pumps were perceived as an "investment that households could not necessarily afford," said Saussay.

Has radical climate protest put off young voters?

According to the "Future? Ask young people! - 2023" survey, over 60% of young people think that climate activist protests are too radical and spread panic.

This figure has almost doubled since 2021, notes Angelika Gellrich from the UBA, adding that over 80% of young people surveyed said that protests which damage property or block street traffic go too far.

Such strategies are not considered "a suitable means of winning over the majority of society," said Gellrich.

several people sit on a street and are flanked by police as one holds up a sign about climate protection
Some young German voters have been put off by direct action climate protests, including blocking streetsImage: Hesham Elsherif/Anadolu/picture alliance

First-time voter Ghandour from Fridays for Future does not, however, believe that the peaceful blocking of airports or roads has damaged the reputation of the climate movement.

She can understand why people find this type of action problematic, yet remains wedded to a strategy that potentially helped win pro-climate votes in 2019. 

"That's also one reason why I'm involved in Fridays for Future and no other, because I believe that peaceful mass protest is still the best way to mobilize civil society."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

This article originally appeared in German.