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The kingmakers of Germany’s election — the liberal Free Democrats and environmentalist Greens — once shared little when it came to politics. But now they have something in common: the people voting for them.
Young Germans flocked to the FDP and Greens last Sunday, with 44 per cent of under-25s voting for them. The trend reflects the demand for change from a younger generation that feels ignored both by Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), who endured their worst electoral result in history, and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who eked out a narrow win.
These two big tent parties dominated Germany’s postwar era, but a younger generation now feels the SPD and CDU lack a clear philosophy for steering their country through choppy waters ahead – from the end of the Merkel era at home, to global threats such as climate change.
“Those parties have no world view. They don’t have anything they really want to act on,” said Justus Gutsche, 18, a member of the Young Liberals who voted for the FDP. “The Greens have ecology. The FDP has liberalism. What do the CDU and SPD have?”
Young voters have barely been factored into German political strategy in recent years, analysts say: the under-30s make up only 14.4 per cent of the electorate, compared with 57.8 per cent for over-50s.
But this time, their votes could help shape the next government: the Greens and FDP will now get to decide whether to form a coalition with the SPD or CDU.
Election data show a stark generational divide, with the vote share won by the SPD and CDU rising steadily with voter age. For the Greens and FDP, the trend is the opposite.
“Where voters go in the next 20 years will depend on what these [two] parties do now,” said Renas Sahin, 20, a first-time voter and member of the Green Youth.
Simon Schnetzer, a political analyst who studies the youth vote, said younger Germans had experienced a years-long “awakening”, starting with the refugee influx in 2015 and the ensuing populist backlash. Next came mass climate change protests. Last year, the coronavirus pandemic exposed Germany as a laggard on digitalising public services and speeding up its plodding internet.
“Before these three crises . . . this was a ‘feel fine’ generation, it felt like a wealthy future was secure. It does not feel that way any more,” Schnetzer said. “Their big issue now is having a future worth living for.”
Paulina Brünger, a young climate activist with the Fridays for Future protest movement, recalled her surprise at the swift government response to the pandemic — from emergency laws to massive spending programmes.
“We had politicians saying: this is a crisis. It’s going to be hard. But we can get through it together,” she said. “We’ve now seen with Covid-19 what politicians can do when they think there’s a crisis — and how little they have acted on the climate.”
The pandemic also triggered a shift away from the CDU, which won 25 per cent of voters under-30 in 2017, compared with 11 per cent last Sunday. Young FDP voters told the FT they followed lockdowns to help protect older generations, yet felt their needs — such as establishing effective online education platforms — were ignored.
“I remember the FDP being laughed at in the 2017 elections for having digitalisation as a topic,” said Noreen Thiel, 18, who this year not only voted for the first time but also ran as an FDP candidate in Berlin. “Our government simply forgot young people.”
While the appeal of Green politics to young voters fighting for the future of the planet is clear, Schnetzer was surprised that the liberals took the same share of first-time voters as the Greens, at 23 per cent each.
He attributes the FDP’s success partly to the appeal of its leader Christian Lindner, especially among young men. The 42-year-old politician drives a Porsche and is known for his witty retorts. Lindner himself told the Financial Times that young voters chose his party “because the FDP is all about freedom and zest for life, the joy of technology and innovation as a future promise”.
Young FDP voters believe they share common ground with the Greens: both have similar stances on human rights and legalising cannabis, and both want to lower the voting age to 16.
“I hear some conservatives say [lowering the voting age] would only give an advantage to the Greens,” Thiel said. “Well, if you’re not coming up with policies to attract young people, you can’t hate them for not voting for you.”
Many young FDP voters interviewed by the FT supported a “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP, believing it would more likely meet their demands.
But left-leaning young Greens remain wary. “If getting into a coalition with the SPD and FDP means not making radical change . . . the Greens will have to think whether what they are doing is really the way forward,” Sahin said.
Schnetzer suspects the two parties may struggle to live up to the hopes of young voters. “Up to now, it was easy to say they were the agents of change,” he said. The coming days, under pressure from more powerful parties and the expectations of older voters, “will show how strong their will to change really is”.
Yet continuing to neglect young voters could be risky, warned Gutsche. He is from a poor eastern mining region and in recent years has seen people who felt sidelined turning to the far-right Alternative for Germany. He fears the pull of populism.
Young climate activists, for their part, warn some in their ranks could turn to radical tactics if the next government does not take more drastic action to counter climate change.
“I don’t expect some kind of rebellion,” Sahin said. But he worries that without change, faith in democratic institutions could fade. “We cannot let that happen,” he said. “We would face a generation that lost its sense of hope.”