Young people get politically active on own terms | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.08.2012
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Young people get politically active on own terms

Fewer 14-to-19-year-olds express an interest in political parties, politicians and parliaments. But researchers in Germany say that doesn't mean they're turning into an apolitical generation.

His message is heard by many young people, especially in Germany. In the last few years, rapper Bushido has become something of an idol to disenchanted youths. His songs deal with drug dealing, prostitution and armed violence. He also raps about the state of Berlin's problematic neighborhoods and their large immigrant populations.

The 33-year-old German-Tunisian rarely mentions politics. Bushido's lyrics are often sexist and homophobic. He was convicted on charges relating to a brawl and has numerous drug convictions as well.

Little education, little political interest

But it caused a stir when the controversial artist completed a one-week internship in the German Federal Parliament. Conservative parliamentarian Christian von Stetten of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had invited him to take a closer look at the political process.

Bushido at a desk (Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn)

Rapper Bushido garnered attention as a parliamentary intern

Bushido accepted the invitation and said he treated the parliament as an "adventure playground." But for the rapper/intern, like many of his fans, the daily life of parliament - committee meetings, government statements, parliamentary agendas - is a foreign world. Often young migrants from underprivileged backgrounds find they have more in common with musicians like Bushido, who was born as Anis Mohammed Youssef Ferchichi in Bonn in 1978.

A new study from the German Federal Center for Political Education, in conjunction with the Sinus Institute in Heidelberg, has shown that an increasing number of young people in the 14-to-19-year-old age group practically ignore the institutions of representative democracy: political parties, politicians and parliament.

Klaus Hurrelmann (DW)

Klaus Hurrelmann said young people are still politically active

"For a minority of almost 20 percent of young people today there is a huge gap between themselves and the parties, and they question democracy as a form of government and life," educational researcher Klaus Hurrelmann, co-editor of the study, told DW.

Educational researcher Marc Calmbach, from the Sinus Institute in Heidelberg, told DW that part of the reason for this was that socially disadvantaged youth are also educationally disadvantaged and that as a result are they are more likely to be politically disconnected. "It is only when stars such as Bushido articulate their problems in language they can understand that many young people start listening," Calmbach said.

Hurrelmann says the study shows that showing an interest in politics and being politically active indicates a good education, emotional maturity and a high level of confidence in social situations.

Take Hao Vu, a 19-year-old student from Bernkastel-Kues in the western German state of the Rhineland-Palatinate, who began to become interested in politics while volunteering at the fire department two years ago. "I realized that politics are very important, because my community pays for the fire department and decides on our budget."

A staged session of parliament in June 2012 (Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn pixel)

Germany opens its parliament to staged sessions for young people

Vu, who is currently a 12th grader at a vocational high school, joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2010 and has taken part in party meetings in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Vu has been the cashier in the party's local chapter. He has taken part in the youth parliament and he took part in a staged session in the federal parliament.

"Often when I read a bill or a position paper, I think it's all been put together in a boring way," he said, but added that behind the boring facade is the starting point for the laws that influence people's lives. And that's what Vu said motivates him to sit through long party conferences, tough negotiations and struggle through the minutes of meetings.

Hao Vu (DW)

Hao Vu said he sees how politics affects people's lives

He said he plans his political activities on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Besides provoking debate, he also provides his network with relevant information. For many of his older party colleagues, this is not traditional party work in the narrow sense. But for Vu, it represents the future of the party and of politics.

Occupy or the town council?

Exactly what represents political activity remains a difficult and controversial question, Calmbach said. Many young people no longer see striving for positions in political parties as being politically active. Fewer 14-to-19-year-olds are choosing to spend their otherwise free time in local groups affiliated with political parties.

"Young people tend to want to be much more involved in projects, projects with a limited timeframe, and they want to see direct benefits right away," he said.

Despite a waning interest in joining the official work of political parties, young people are not any less politically active than their parents' generation. As in the 1960s and 1970s, youth are choosing to make their political statements outside of official bodies.

The worldwide Occupy movement, which largely protested against the power of global financial markets, and the anti-ACTA protests on the streets are examples of how young people choose to express their political views.

Occupy protester in Frankfurt, 2011 (dpa)

Occupy and street movements appeal to more young people than political parties

"Young people have a feeling that even the politicians themselves can't understand many issues and constantly need consultants," Calmbach said.

The rise of the Pirate Party and its platform of pushing for more transparency and direct democracy is another example of how young people want to see politics changed.

"We are seeing disenchantment with political parties but not disenchantment with politics," Hurrelmann said.

After his internship, rapper Bushido said he would work to fight the trend. He announced that he wanted to create a political party of his own and to become the mayor of Berlin.

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