BERLIN—One of the hottest campaign topics in Germany’s national elections is something that is a distant dream for the country’s younger voters: pensions.
Older voters have long had a determining influence on elections in Germany. As the aging country grows even older—the over-60 now make up two-thirds of the electorate, according to the government—they are becoming the key target of political parties’ messages, something a new cadre of politically savvy influencers is trying to change.
“No millennial knows Helmut Schmidt anymore. They only know [outgoing Chancellor]
” said Dr. Wolfgang Gründinger, a 37-year-old author of political books. Mr. Schmidt was the country’s chancellor from 1974-1982, and his image features in a campaign ad. “Even the Greens try to appeal to the old voters because the young voters, they elect them anyways,” Mr. Gründinger said.
Older voters—those above or near retirement age—aren’t just a big part of the electorate, they are also more likely to vote in a country that routinely has turnout rates around 70% for national ballots. By comparison, Pew Research Center estimates that U.S. turnout was 56% in 2016 and rose into the 60s in 2020. Some younger voters in Germany say this means their interests aren’t being addressed enough in the campaign.
“No one talks about teens and the young professionals [age] 15 to 30,” said Paulina Kintzinger, 24, who works on the election campaign for Annika Klose, a 29-year-old member of the center-left Social Democratic Party and candidate for the federal parliament in Berlin’s central district. “[It’s] like these 15 years of potential voters doesn’t exist in the German campaign.”
Whereas American politicians trip over themselves to win over young voters, dangling everything from policy proposals on student debt to massive get-out-the-vote concerts and celebrity cameos in campaign ads, establishment politicians in Germany promise stability, not change, and often appeal to nostalgia.
This means efforts to mobilize younger voters and focus the parties’ attention on the issues these voters care about have mainly come from non-politicians this year.
Germans have even coined a word for young (and youngish) social-media celebrities who have espoused political causes: “Sinnfluencer,” a portmanteau of the words “Sinn,” German for sense or purpose, and influencer.
These include 25-year-old climate activist Luisa Neubauer. In one Instagram post, she showed her estimate of the per capita carbon-dioxide emissions represented by each party’s platform. Sustainability influencer Louisa Dellert, 31, has used her Instagram account to discuss the various parties’ positions on the speed limit on German highways. Each woman reaches hundreds of thousands outside traditional media.
“Every young person who says that politicians don’t care about them a lot—to me, it makes a lot of sense and it’s kind of no surprise,” Ms. Neubauer said.
“There are parties in this government that freak out just by the thought that 16-year-olds could be voting,” she said, pointing to recent debate in Germany about lowering the voting age. “And that says a lot about whom politicians think they’re working for and whom they’re not working for.”
Inclusion and accessibility advocate Raul Krauthausen, 41, said he is considering explicitly endorsing a candidate on his Instagram account. One of his recent efforts has focused on pressuring the makers of the “Wahl-O-Mat” app and website, which recommends which party to vote for after a user responds to a quiz on election issues, into offering a friendlier interface for people with disabilities. He shares messages from people frustrated with the app’s accessibility on his social-media accounts.
“There are some activists who are really angry now, and I tried to give them more reach with my followers,” Mr. Krauthausen said.
Rezo, a blue-haired German YouTuber known for his music videos, made his foray into the political circuit when he posted a scathing criticism of the center-right Christian Democratic Union days ahead of the 2019 European election.
The CDU pushed back against the entertainer, who doesn’t give his real name, with a document fact-checking his claims, then went on to score a historically low 28.9% of the vote at that election while the Greens shot up to a historically high 20.5% on the back of a campaign focused on preventing climate change.
Sandwiched between videos about electric cars and German soccer’s Bundesliga, Rezo last month uploaded another anti-CDU video that begins by hitting the party for its response to this summer’s catastrophic flooding and characterizes its climate policy as insufficient. A follow-up posted in early September takes aim at what he describes as a cozy relationship between politicians and coal companies.
While the share of young voters in the electorate is small, participation among the young is high by U.S. standards. Turnout hovers around 68% for voters under age 30 and creeps up to the low 70s for voters under age 40.
Despite this, “most of the parties and especially the big parties have a stronger focus on issues that are of interest [to the over 60],” said Dr. Andreas Jungherr, 39, chair of political science at the University of Bamberg.
a Social Democrat and the leading contender for the chancellery, has said his government would focus on fighting child poverty, making housing more affordable and shoring up the country’s pay-as-you-go pension system. The conservative CDU and the free-market Free Democratic Party have put tax cuts high on their agenda.
The FDP said it prioritizes issues that are popular among young voters including education and the need for digitization in schools amid Covid-19. A party spokesperson also pointed to gains made among under-30 voters during the last federal election four years ago.
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A spokesperson for the SPD touted its slate of young candidates, including 34 candidates under age 30 and around 80 candidates under 35. The party is also calling for investments in schools including digitization and access to higher education, and a push to abolish the temporary employment contracts often offered to young people.
The Greens declined to comment. The CDU didn’t provide comment on the matter.
Some pollsters think the lack of focus on younger voters is politically risky. The German political system has grown more fragmented over time: There are now six parties in parliament compared with three less than 40 years ago and the most popular is polling at just 25%. This means smaller groups of voters could now more easily influence the shape of the next government, especially this year when polls suggest the next ruling coalition will have to include three parties for the first time.
“My generation feels like we are so ready for change,” Ms. Kintzinger said, reflecting on Ms. Merkel’s 16-year stewardship of the country that earned her the maternal nickname “Mutti,” meaning “mum.”
“At some point you don’t need them anymore because you’ve grown up,” she said.
Write to Erin Delmore at firstname.lastname@example.org
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