Fridays for Future activists in Berlin in 2019 (Photo: © Jörg Farys / WWF - Flickr)


Is it too late for progressives to win back the German youth vote?

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Fridays for Future activists in Berlin in 2019 (Photo: © Jörg Farys / WWF - Flickr)

One might think the young vote is secure for Sabrina Repp. She’s running for the German Social Democrats (SPD) in the upcoming European Parliament elections and at 25-years, a member of the Generation Z herself. 

The reality is different: “I often experience a certain frustration when I talk to young people,“ she says. “Many have gotten involved [with politics], for example with Fridays for Future. But they often feel that their concerns are not taken seriously.” 

All over Germany, those who run for Green and left-wing parties share similar experiences. Just five years ago, the youth in Europe kicked off the “green wave”, took the streets with Fridays for Future and carried the Greens to a dream result in the 2019 European Parliament elections. 

But this year, polls show that many young people turned their back on the progressives and started supporting the far-right. In the wake of the European Elections, what used to be a reliable group of voters, could now turn into a nightmare for the green and left-wing parties. 

Lowering the voting age might backfire

Just two years ago, the German “Ampel”-government, named after the colors of the three governing parties, lowered the voting age in European elections to 16. Now there is a fear among party officials that this decision could backfire for the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals (FDP). “Many of the SPD voters are older people. That's why there have already been voices asking: 'Are you crazy to want to lower the voting age?’” says Repp. “But it is important to us that all voices are heard in politics.” 

A study published in April caused a buzz among the governing parties. The results showed that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland “AfD” became the most popular among voters between 14 and 29, surpassing the Green party by doubling its result compared to 2022. 

According to the results, topics like the inflow of refugees, inflation or old-age poverty increasingly worry young people – themes that are also addressed by right-wing populists. Many respondents also replied that they “don’t know” who to vote for.

This particular study has been criticized for using online panels. Respondents were not contacted randomly, but participated by signing up online. This could mean that the results are not representative. Nonetheless, young voters increasingly turning right is a visible trend: in state elections in Hesse last year, the AfD was the second strongest party for people between 18 and 24, experiencing an eight percentage-point jump compared to the previous election.

“The shift to the right is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Klaus Hurrelmann, Professor for public health and education at the Hertie School in Berlin and co-author of the study. He has been researching the youth for years. “There is a great psychological tension underneath, young people have the feeling that they cannot shape their lives in peace and feel helpless.” 

Trends that started during the lockdown years are now getting worse, according to the researcher. “Nationalist, extreme right and populist positions are becoming attractive for the youth,” says Hurrelmann. 

Not just a German phenomenon

The parties that make up the current German government used to champion the young. Now, many are turning away in disappointment with their output. “The self-proclaimed reform government can’t get its act together,” says Hurrelmann. “They lack an optimistic outlook, a positive momentum. This is political failure.”

The shift to the right among the youth is not just a German phenomenon. Across Europe, right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen, Georgia Meloni and Geert Wilders are gaining appeal for young voters, leading to ever better election results in this age group.

The consequences of a radicalization of young people can be severe. Just weeks ago, Matthias Ecke, MEP for the SPD and candidate in Dresden, was beat up by 17- and 18-year-olds while putting up campaign posters. Later, an investigation by the German public broadcaster MDR found that at least two the suspects were supporters of the AfD. The news caused an outcry among politicians, resulting in spontaneous manifestations.

Some older MEPs lacked the understanding

Among campaigning MEPs by the Greens and Social Democrats, the developments caused a headache. “There are many factors behind the fact that young people are moving to the right,” says Daniel Freund, German MEP for the Greens. “Climate change is no longer as prominent an issue as it was five years ago. In 2019, there was a certain optimism that we would manage the green transformation.” 

“Young people are experiencing far too many crises at the same time,” says Luisa Neubauer, who is an activist for Fridays for Future. According to her, many are struggling with paying their rent, finding jobs, the possibility of war in Europe and existential concerns about the climate and planet. “Focusing on just one crisis and ignoring everything else is unrealistic. At the same time, we see that many people don't feel that their crises are being taken seriously. Politicians are not acting fast enough and this is helping right-wing populism.”

The European Parliament itself is not exactly stacked with what youngsters. The average MEP is 49,5 years old. This demographic reality has its influence on campaigning strategies: “Some older MEPs lack the understanding that you have to fight for young people,” says Niklas Nienaß, a German Green MEP who, at 32 years, himself is one of the youngest in Parliament. 

His colleague Jutta Paulus agrees: “Some colleagues look at the distribution of voters and see that a large proportion of them are over 70,” she says. “And then, of course, the question is whether I should invest my energy in the election campaign in the younger generation, which is much smaller.”

The fight to win back TikTok

It’s about more than just demography though: While established parties kept debating whether to start accounts on TikTok, the AfD has been gaining reach and support among the young users. An analysis by the think-tank polisphere shows that the AfD has focused especially on the European elections on the platform. Their former German lead candidate Maximilian Krah – who has now stepped back after a series of scandals – became famous with viral videos about masculinity: “real men are right-wing, real men have ideals, real men are patriots,” is a quote from one of his most viral videos.

The decision to leave TikTok for the AfD was costly: “The other parties have no other choice but to invest in TikTok,” says Hurrelmann. “Young people are issue-oriented and want the party to keep up with the times.” With short, simplistic videos, the right-wing populists were able to place a large part of their arguments with young voters. “They know what the AfD stands for,” says Hurrelmann.

Sabrina Repp, 25-year-old MEP hopeful for the German SPD. Photo: Susie Knoll

“We missed out on being more active on TikTok, we need to have a stronger presence there,” says Nienaß. "But it's not just about making dance videos, we have to do politics for young people.”  In recent months, many started accounts on TikTok, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Nienaß, Freund and Repp also set up accounts. But it is not easy: “This is a huge challenge for us. If we get more involved in TikTok and other social media now, many young people will already be in filter bubbles,” Repp says. “We can no longer reach some of them.”

A campaign to win TikTok back as an arena for progressive politics is in full swing. Under the name #ReclaimTikTok, Fridays for Future activists started posting videos about the climate crisis and the European elections. They claim to have already reached a total of 100 million views for their videos – which for TikTok’s standards is not particularly much.

The shift to the right might not be set in stone

Their efforts combine posting content on TikTok with specific workshops for young people and a climate strike on May 31st. The goal is to not just warn of a shift to the right but raise awareness for the fight against the climate crisis. “It is an ecological campaign with a very clear message: the climate crisis is here, but we can act and do something about it. We're not just running an anti-right-wing campaign, but we are making it clear that the right-wing is a threat to our democracy and our climate,” says Neubauer.

To win back the young voters, campaigning MEPs also take on the schools. “I try to go to every school that invites me,” Daniel Freund says. “But not all of them have debates with the candidates. It does worry me that many schools probably don't discuss these issues.” Jutta Paulus also agrees that the European Union should be discussed more in schools: “Teachers have a big responsibility when it comes to explaining this election to young people.”

If their efforts will change the outcome of the European Elections is, obviously, not certain. Activist Luisa Neubauer remains optimistic: “Of course, the threat of a shift to the right is great. But it is not set in stone, everything can still change.” 

Recent local elections in Eastern Germany have shown that the AfD might not be as strong as it seems. Overall, the European elections could still be a major blow for the progressive parties, mainly because of the lack of support for the German government: “The government needs an encouraging message,” Klaus Hurrelmann says. “But in the European elections, they will probably lose a lot of ground.” 

To win back the youth, established parties might have to be in it for the long haul.