Why these European elections were different: three key lessons from Germany.
After years of disinterest and declining participations, last week’s European elections were full of suspense and surprises. In Germany, the elections were an unprecedented triumph for the Greens. Over 20% voted for the party that didn’t even exist when the first EU elections were held in 1979. in addition to this spectacular success story, the supposedly Green wave also reflects three levels of polarization: between old and young, is and wis, as well as urban and rural areas – a development which increasingly undermines the German tradition of consensual politics.
The success of the Greens in Germany is not much of a surprise. While in recent years the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has dominated German politics, more recently the still strong performance of the Greens in the polls has shown a trend almost diametrically opposed to the nativism of the AfD. The Fridays of the future protests for more determined political action against climate change have been particularly strong in Germany. They indicate that a new generation is entering German politics. In opposition to the AfD, this generation is pro-European and anti-nationalist. But, like the AfD, it’s a trend against politics as usual.
None of the so-called Volksparteien (the popular parties) – the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the dominant political parties in Germany for decades – have been able to react, let alone take advantage of this trend. Even the far left Die Linke, generally performing well among younger voters, struggled to find ways to capitalize on the new politicization. So far, the Greens are almost the only beneficiaries of this development.
A landmark episode a few days before the election showed how powerful this new generation has become. A YouTuber known as Rezo posted a clip titled “The Destruction of the CDU”. In the 55-minute video, Rezo attacked primarily the CDU, but also the SPD, for their failure to tackle climate change, social injustices and German involvement in US military actions. There are probably thousands of videos online that make similar points. However, with his comprehensive and well-communicated approach, backed by numerous sources, Rezo struck a chord.
Most political observers had never heard of Rezo before. Most striking was the political impact it had on the German political debate. In just a few days, the video reached over 5 million clicks. The traditional parties have clearly been overwhelmed by this response. After attempting to ignore the clip, the CDU struggled for days to find an answer before awkwardly inviting the influencer to party headquarters for a discussion.
But too late: Rezo had already joined with some 80 other influencers in calling on their supporters not to vote for the SPD, CDU or AfD – a call that many young voters apparently turned into voting for the Greens. As some of the most striking data from Germany shows, the Green Party has enjoyed tremendous success among young voters: 36% of first-time voters supported the Greens, and 34% of those under 25. In both cases it is more than the SPD, the CDU, the AfD and Die Linke combined.
Rezo’s case doesn’t just show the growing gap between traditional parties and young voters. He also embodies the politicization of a new generation and the emergence of online influencers as powerful actors in German politics. Yet it is also true that this part of the political spectrum increasingly appears to be a parallel world to a more conservative, far-right milieu that has formed around the AfD – a milieu whose heart lies in eastern Germany..
While the AfD has carried out below expectations nationally and struggling to reach 10% in West Germany, it established itself as first or second all East German States. In Saxony, it reached 25.4%, which suggests a possible victory for the AfD in the state elections in September. Early reactions to the election results among AfD supporters were the same disbelief at the rise of the Greens as that of Green supporters watching the AfD’s performance in the East.
However, it would be wrong to see in the rise of the Greens only a polarization between the old conservatives and the young progressives, a nativist east and a west open to the world. In fact, all over Germany the Greens have played particularly good in big cities. In 10 of the 15 German cities of over 500,000 inhabitants, the Greens came out on top. Even in AfD-dominated Saxony, the party performed well in urban centers, becoming the most powerful party in Leipzig. Maps showing these results make the large German cities appear as green islands in a sea of ââblack (representing the CDU in the west) and blue (representing the AfD in the east).
The dramatic increase in the participation rate from just 43% to 61.4% only underscores the importance of these polarizing trends. Yet, in their initial reactions to the election results, many observers were concerned about the demise of traditional center-right and left-wing parties in Germany and beyond. But it would be a mistake to view the different polarization levels as a challenge for the SPD and CDU only.
On the contrary, the Greens must be careful not to get carried away by their success story. If they want this to be a sustainable rise, the main challenge for the party will not be to deepen the polarization but to develop responses that appeal to an older, more rural population, in particular, but not only, to ballast. Given similar polarizing trends through Europe, the success of the Greens in the face of this challenge will be significant not only for the future of Germany, but of Europe as a whole.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.