Ballots From Teens in Germany Rock the Vote

In politics, those who do "better than expected" almost always count as winners, too.

And so it has proved in the German state of Lower Saxony, which just held its first municipal elections in which 16- and 17-year-olds could vote - a first in Europe, and possibly the world.

Advocates of the teen franchise were prepared to declare victory if turnout reached one-third of those eligible. But in the first round of voting Sept. 15, the turnout for 16- and 17-year-olds was roughly 50 percent. In the capital city of Hannover, where the mayoral race drew nationwide attention, "kid voters" turned out in almost the same numbers as the general population - 56.7 percent, as compared with 57 percent.

"I've got to compliment the young people on their turnout," Minister-President Gerhard Schroder, a Social Democrat, commented in Bonn. "They thought through the issues, came up with a position, and voted."

The presumption that young voters would tend to vote for left-wing candidates proved false. The Greens did draw proportionately more support among teen voters than among the general electorate: 27.4 percent, compared with 14.3 percent. But so did the conservative Christian Democrats: 37.3 percent, as against 34.9 percent.

The "kid vote" law was pushed through by the Social Democrats, who control the state legislature. But they were rewarded for their trouble with the support of only 21.1 percent of the 16- and 17-year-old voters, compared with 36.9 of the whole electorate.

Hannover Mayor Herbert Schmalstieg, a Social Democrat and the longest-serving mayor in Germany, was reelected in a runoff Sept. 29. But he won only by a slim margin and only because the Greens' candidate, Pico Jordan, threw his support to Mr. Schmalstieg after failing to make it to the runoff himself.

Christian Wulff, head of the Christian Democratic Union in Lower Saxony, went into the election a professed skeptic on the "kid vote." But since, he has hinted that his party may leave the new voting law in place if the Christian Democrats win control of the legislature in 1998.

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