World Europe

In anti-establishment era, German youth opt for status quo: Angela Merkel

patterns of thought

Upstart parties across Europe have been buoyed by the young's dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and parties. Except, that is, in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel looks set for a fourth term, thanks in part to youth support.

Supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel rally before a TV debate with challenger Martin Schulz of Germany's Social Democratic Party in Berlin Sept. 3. German voters will go to the polls in a general election Sept. 24.
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In Iceland, it's the Pirate Party. In Spain, it's left-wing Podemos. In France, the communist-backed “La France Insoumise.” Across Europe, the anti-establishment parties noisily demanding radical political change are the ones attracting the youth vote.

Until you get to Germany, at least. There, youth are largely lining up behind the country's center-right, three-term, 63-year-old chancellor as the country heads toward federal elections Sept. 24.

And unlike many of their rebellious European peers, German youths say it is precisely Angela Merkel's promise to maintain the status quo that earns her their vote.

Ms. Merkel's secure position, with her party polling comfortably ahead of all her rivals, is partly due to the turbulent state of affairs today. From the unpredictable pronouncements made by President Trump, to the missiles launched by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, to the terrorist threat closer to home, many young German voters, like older ones, believe Merkel’s steady hand is precisely what the world needs right now.

But experts also believe youths, faring well in Germany compared to their European Union peers, are generally more conservative today than in the past. And the pro-EU Merkel herself has made conservatism more palatable, by adopting policies on the left that have blurred political ideology.

A supporter of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) for the upcoming general elections, holds posters reading 'For one Germany in which we will love to live and live well' before an election rally in Torgau, Germany, Sept. 6, 2017.
Reinhard Krause/Reuters
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Vanessa Grothe, who is completing her masters in North American studies in Berlin, says that while many in her circle of friends vote on the left, she has joined the youth wing of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “What Merkel does very well: She stands for stability. And I think that is simply important for many people,” she says in a cafe in the hip Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. “Not just to make a wishy-washy policy, but a stable one.”

No desire for change

In a survey by the German polling firm Forsa in June, 57 percent of first-time voters said they back Merkel as chancellor. Only 21 percent preferred her main rival, Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Germans youths have it comparatively better than those around the continent. With its vaunted apprenticeship program and strong economy, Germany has the lowest youth unemployment in the EU, at 6.7 percent, compared with France at 21.6 percent or southern countries such as Greece, which has the highest rate at 46.6 percent. So Merkel’s promise to keep things the same resonates. “Merkel is telling them, ‘You can trust me. I’ll secure your life,’ ” says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Compare this with attitudes in France. Ultimately it was Emmanuel Macron who prevailed in May’s presidential runoff election in France, winning two-thirds of first-time voters (mirroring overall results), but that support level can be deceiving. Heading into the first round, it was the right-wing Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-wing “La France Insoumise” who won more than 50 percent of first-time voters.

In a YouGov poll this year that surveyed the values of European youths, it was only in Germany that the polling agency found a majority of young people satisfied with their government. Eighty-seven percent of Greek youths, for example, are dissatisfied with theirs.

“Younger voters usually tend to vote for rather left-wing parties or left-wing candidates, whereas in Germany we have quite the opposite phenomenon,” says Peter Matuschek, head of political and social research at Forsa. He says it has something to do with the long incumbency of Merkel – first-time voters don’t know anyone else. But also, he says, “there is not really a longing, neither in the electorate as a whole nor among younger voters, for fundamental change. We have not this feeling, which would help the opposition parties, that we really need a turnaround.”

Fluid policy

Of course not all German youths want things to say the same – or want Merkel for another term in office. In the east especially, many are voting for the left and far left. It is there also where the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has gained the most traction, both because of Merkel's 'open door' refugee policy at the height of the crisis in 2015 and much higher unemployment. Mandy Marx, a 23-year-old mother shopping at a Lidl discount store in the town of Merseburg, says she will not be voting for Merkel. “She’s spent billions of euros for refugees but we can't even get teachers here!"

But elsewhere youths rallied around the humanitarian stance on refugees coming from the center-right. In fact, Merkel's policies have often crossed ideological lines, making it harder for her competitors to differentiate themselves. Mr. Schulz, for example, enjoyed a bounce when he first announced his candidacy in January, but it quickly fizzled.

Since then Merkel supported a law allowing same-sex marriage, which Schulz had thrown his support behind. Merkel also took the wind out of the sails of the Greens, when she announced plans to end Germany’s dependence on nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. This stymies her opponents – some have increasingly argued she is damaging democracy by muting debate, including during the one between between Merkel and Schulz on Sunday night.

Yet her policies make it easier for those across the political spectrum to support her. “I think that Merkel stands for sort of a soft conservatism that is much more accessible to a lot of young people than the Christian Democrats and their conservatism in the past,” says Joerg Forbrig, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Berlin. “If I go back 20 years to the time I was a first time voter the Christian Democrats were sort of more hard-line conservatives at the time and with it a lot less appealing to young people.”

'We do not need rock stars'

She’s still more popular among older people. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 said they trust Merkel to do the “right thing” regarding world affairs, while for the 18-29 percent group it was 73 percent. For all those Germans who applaud Merkel’s European policies, she angered many young leftists with hard-line austerity placed on Greece. Youth unemployment is low but many new jobs are so-called “mini jobs,” far from the quality standards enjoyed by the older generation.

Ulrich Schneekloth, senior director at Kantar Public in Germany, says that while it is true that Merkel is trusted among young Germans more so than Schulz, whom so many young people feel is unknown, her party itself is not their party of choice. For that reason he says it’s not a given where the youth vote will go Sept. 24.

Merkel seems not to be taking these vulnerabilities for granted, especially as one poll in late August showed nearly half of German voters still undecided. Merkel has sought to woo young people, campaigning at a computer-gaming convention last month for example, and doing a live YouTube interview where she revealed that her favorite emoji is the smiley face – with a heart emoji added too on particularly good days. It’s unlikely these kinds of moves will change perceptions of Merkel among young Germans. A poll by the German arm of YouGov in July among teens showed that many found her “far away from young people,” and “boring.”

But that’s just fine, says Ms. Grothe. “Politics should not be about entertainment, as it has now become more or less in the US,” she says. “We do not need rock stars in politics. This is the responsibility of the entertainment industry."

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris. Isabelle de Pommereau contributed reporting from Merserburg.