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How Germany’s Social Democratic Party lost the youth vote

How Germany’s Social Democratic Party lost the youth vote
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The youth office in the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party in central Berlin – known as Willy Brandt Haus, after the late SPD chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner – was not a happy place in the week before Germany s federal election.

With its bright colours, funky furniture and airy ceilings, the office seemed the perfect spot for a postelection celebration. But there will likely be no wild party after the polls close on Sunday.

That s because every poll says that chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will win the election by a wide margin. And every poll says she will handily win the most votes among 18- to 24-year-olds. They are the coveted youth vote – every federal election brings in roughly three-million new voters.

Sitting in the virtually empty office, Leonard Von Galen, the SPD s international youth secretary, and Benjamin Koester, the youth arm s press officer, knew that it was pretty much game over. The most recent polls found that 57 per cent of first-time voters prefer Ms. Merkel as chancellor, compared to a mere 21 per cent for SPD Leader Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Union.

"For many first-time voters, Angela Merkel is familiar," says Mr. Von Galen, noting that most of them were just children when she won her first term as chancellor in 2005. "They don t know how anyone else could be chancellor. She s like the mother of the state."

Mr. Koester admits that the strong German economy, where unemployment is at record lows, is working against the SPD. "The situation is just too good to start a revolution," he says.

Indeed, Germany s youth seem a largely content lot, especially in Western Germany, which is wealthier than the former, Communist-controlled eastern part of the country. Getting a first-time job in Germany is a relatively easy affair, which is one reason why most migrants make the country their destination of choice.

According to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development figures, only 10.8 per cent of young people (20-24) in Germany were classified as NEETs – not in employment, education or training – well below the OECD and European Union average (in France, the figure is more than 20 per cent; in Italy, more than 30 per cent). In 2005, the year Ms. Merkel first became chancellor, Germany s NEET reading was 18.7 per cent.

Germany s youth voters are something of an anomaly in the EU, where young voters seem to be rebelling against the established or governing parties. There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain s Labour Party, owes his political life to the youth vote. In the June snap election, the youth-vote turnout was unusually high and 60 per cent of it went for Labour. The Labour surge cost Prime Minister Theresa May her Conservative majority in Parliament.

In the spring French election, Emmanuel Macron, the political newcomer who created the centrist En Marche! party, won more than 50 per cent of the vote in every age category, including young voters. The traditional parties – the then-ruling Socialists and the Republicans – were eliminated in the election s first round. In Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the firebrand comedian Beppe Grillo, is stealing votes from the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties that have ruled Italy almost without interruption since the Second World War. A recent report by London analyst Antonio Guglielmi of Mediobanca Securities said that nearly 50 per cent of the 18-24 age group supports Five Star (the Italian election will happen no later than next spring).

Traditionally, Germany s conservatives, represented by the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have not been big hits among young voters. They tended to gravitate towards the social democrats – the SPD – and the Greens. But that changed in the last election, in 2013, when the CDU came on strong among young voters. In that election, the party got 25.1 per cent of the youth vote, marginally ahead of the 24.5 per cent who endorsed the SPD, as young people enjoyed the spoils of the booming, postcrisis German economy. The Green party placed a respectable third, at 11.9 per cent, among young voters.

If the recent polls are right, Ms. Merkel and her CDU will blow the SPD out of the water on the youth-vote front in this election.

Ms. Merkel, 63, is seeking her fourth term. She is as familiar as an old sweater and widely known as Mutti – Mommy – among all classes of voters. Why do the kinder like her so much other than the economy has been good to them? While there is no doubt she represents stability in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, her refugee policy seems the biggest part of her attraction.

Berlin s Humbolt University, one of Germany s oldest and most famous liberal arts and humanities schools, could not be called a conservative bastion; anything but. In the past, it s a safe bet to say that its students voted en masse for the SPD or the Green parties. A few would have supported Die Linke – The Left – the remnant of the old East German communist party, which took 8.6 per cent of the total vote in the 2013 election.

At Humbolt s cafeteria, random conversations with students certainly left the impression that the SPD or the Greens were still fairly popular, but more than a few of them were backing Ms. Merkel. Antonia Papenheim, 29, a candidate for a PhD in law who is from Dusseldorf, says she likes Ms. Merkel because she is not an ideologue, instead seeking practical compromises. "She s very good at negotiating," she says. "She s very pragmatic about things, and she s trustworthy."

Her stand on same-sex marriage also appealed to her and to young voters in general, Ms. Papenheim says. Ms. Merkel called for an open vote in parliament on same-sex marriage. While she herself voted against it (pleasing her conservative base), the vote went in favour of gay unions (pleasing social progressives).

But she admires Ms. Merkel most for her refugee policy. In the fall of 2015, Ms. Merkel opened Germany s borders to almost one million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan.

Many young people saw the move as an unprecedented act of human compassion and generosity even as it propelled the rise of Alternative for Germany, the right-wing, anti-immigrant party that is expected to nab 10 per cent or more of the vote on Sunday. "I have the highest regard for her refugee policy," Ms. Papenheim says.

Even some Humbolt students who say they will vote for the SPD or the Greens admit they respect Ms. Merkel s refugee policy. "Ms. Merkel s party is very conservative, she has led for too many years and we need a change," says Magdalena Putz, a law student. "But, still, I liked her refugee decision."

Back at youth office of SPD headquarters, Mr. Von Galen and Mr. Koester admit that Ms. Merkel appeals to young voters because of her stable, calming influence and her refugee policy, but they struggle to see why some of her other policies have not alienated voters.

They note that most young people are pro-Europe but argue that some of Ms. Merkel s European policies, such as her insistence on tough austerity measures for Greece and other struggling Mediterranean countries, have not been unifying. "Martin Schulz is a strong European figure and is fighting for a stronger European Union," Mr. Von Galen says.

He and Mr. Koester also say that Germany suffers from a lack of affordable housing – German housing prices have soared in recent years – and investment in schools and infrastructure has been low (Germany s infrastructure investment rates have indeed been mean by EU standards). "Martin Schulz talks about investing in the future, for education and housing and he wants a minimum wage for trainees," Mr. Koester says. "I fear that some people don t understand how little Angela Merkel has done in these areas."
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