Germany’s Election Results Show Young Voters’ Growing Influence

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BERLIN—Germany’s youngest voters are turning their backs on big, established parties and casting their ballots for two smaller groups that are calling for change: one focused on climate and social justice, the other on freer markets and personal liberties.

Some 44% of voters under 25 picked the Greens or the Free Democrats in Sunday’s election while just a quarter voted for the center-left Social Democratic Party or the conservative Christian Democratic Union, according to preliminary analyses by polling form Infratest dimap. The figures were similar for first-time voters, the biggest share of whom opted for the FDP.

Pollsters say this trend partly reflects voter fatigue. The CDU and the SPD have dominated German political life since the end of World War II.

Angela Merkel

is preparing to bow out after 16 years in the chancellery, 12 of which were spent governing in a coalition between her CDU and the SPD.

The SPD did win the election, but with just 25.7% of the vote and the narrowest of leads over the conservatives. Such weakness means the next ruling coalition will have to include three parties instead of the traditional two in order to have a majority in parliament. So the CDU and the SPD have been wooing both the Greens and the FDP, turning them into kingmakers.

The big parties’ failure to attract younger voters is one reason why they have seen their share of the vote erode for decades. The conservatives lost 2.5 million voters and the SPD one million to the Greens and the FDP between 2017 and 2021, according to Infratest dimap. Nearly 18% of Green members and over 17% of FDP members are younger than 30, compared with only 7.8% and 5.6% for the SPD and the CDU respectively, according to 2019 figures.

Members of Germany’s Greens attended an election party on Sunday.



Photo:

jens schlueter/press pool

The big parties’ base isn’t just aging, it is also dying. Well over one million conservative and nearly 700,000 SPD voters have died since the last election in 2017.

Simon Schnetzer, a researcher who studies youth culture, says how the young voted partly reflects their sense that the big parties have been too focused on serving the older voters that are the bulk of their electorate, thus neglecting long-term issues from combating climate change to fixing education, promoting digitization, and plugging the pension system’s funding gap.

While the FDP and Greens are part of the mainstream, their political profiles are sharper and more distinct than that of the CDU, in particular, which Ms. Merkel pushed into the center under her long tenure with her decisions to end nuclear energy, abolish conscription and welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees. This has made her party hard to distinguish from the SPD in many areas, and less attractive to younger voters who tend to be more polarized.

The Greens and the FDP, by comparison, have little overlap: The former want to raise taxes for the rich in order to pay for an ambitious transition to a carbon-free economy, while the FDP wants to slash taxation and use market forces to save the planet. Despite these differences, they both call for rapid change in a number of areas, which pollsters say appeals more to younger voters who have less faith than their elders in slow, organic change.

The two are closer on education, digitization and civil rights and both want to legalize cannabis and decriminalize drug consumption—all issues vital to young voters, said Manfred Güllner, the head of the Forsa polling company.

Germany’s Political Shift

More election coverage, selected by WSJ editors

The smaller parties’ appeal also lies in their leadership. The Greens’ lead candidate Annalena Baerbock and FDP chairman

Christian Lindner

are both around age 40 and active on social media. In contrast, the conservatives and SPD candidates were political veterans in their 60s.

Julius Riedel, a 22-year-old management student and first-time voter from Munich, said pension reform was a key factor that persuaded him to support the FDP, which wants to overhaul a pay-as-you-go system most experts say is unsustainable because of Germany’s rapidly aging society.

While both Green and FDP voters are on average wealthier and better educated than those of other parties, the FDP has traditionally been seen as a champion of business elites. Mr. Schnetzer, the researcher, said this was partly a misconception: Many upwardly mobile youths from poorer families also support the party.

Maximilian Sender, a 27-year-old startup entrepreneur from Berlin, said he voted for the FDP because of its “mantra that a state must first focus on generating revenue and then think of redistribution.”

By contrast, many Green voters were largely driven by issues unrelated to the economy, according to polls.

Sebastian Nieveler, a 32-year-old Berliner who is retraining to become a physiotherapist, said he supported the Greens because of their stance on social justice, sexual minorities and animal welfare. He said he used to vote for the Left Party but became disillusioned with their Russia-friendly posture.

He wouldn’t vote for the SPD, he said, because the party didn’t reflect his concern about the moral aspects of food production: They serve sausages at their conventions, he said, which goes against his views on abolishing mass livestock breeding.

Alexandra Regener, a 21-year-old law student from Berlin, also voted for the Greens in what was her first federal election. She studied all platforms and decided that the Greens had the most concrete, detailed and transparent proposals on fighting global warming.

“The most important issue for me is the climate: If we don’t protect the climate everything we have now will be gone in 30 years,” Ms. Regener said.

One thing young voters interviewed for this article all agreed on: The big establishment parties had proved incapable of embracing change and should now yield to more dynamic politicians with more ambitious agendas.

“The longer you wait, the greater the costs,” Mr. Riedel said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has worked with four U.S. presidents. From George W. Bush giving her shoulder rubs to Donald Trump refusing to shake her hand, key moments show how the trans-Atlantic alliance cooled during Merkel’s 16 years in office. Photo: Mandel Ngan/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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