Skateboards, climate change and freedom: the new generation of German parliament

BERLIN – Emilia Fester is 23 years old and has not yet finished her studies. Max Lucks is 24 and calls himself an activist cyclist. Ria Schröder is 29 years old and wears the rainbow flag on her Twitter profile. Muhanad Al-Halak is 31 years old and came to Germany from Iraq at the age of 11.

And all are now in the German Parliament.

The result of the German election was in many ways a confusion. The winners, the Social Democrats led by Olaf Scholz, barely won. No party obtained more than 25.7%. Voters distributed their ballots evenly between the associated candidates on the left and the right.

But one thing is clear: The Germans have elected their youngest parliament, and the two parties at the center of this generational shift, the Greens and Free Democrats, will not only shape the next government, but are also ready to help. to shape the future of the country.

For now, the Greens, focused on climate change and social justice, and the Free Democrats, who have campaigned on civil liberties and digital modernization, are kingmakers: whoever becomes the next chancellor has almost certainly need both parties to form a government.

“We will no longer leave politics to the older generation,” said Ms Schröder, a new Hamburg Free Democrats lawmaker. “The world has changed around us. We want to take our country to the future, because it is our future.

For decades, Germany has been ruled by two rival establishment parties, each ruled by older men and, more recently, by a somewhat older woman. Indeed, when Chancellor Angela Merkel took office in 2005 at the age of 51, she was the youngest Chancellor in history. The German electorate is still older, with one in four voters over the age of 60, but it was a younger vote, some of them angry, that lifted the two upstart parties.

In total, 44% of voters under 25 voted for the Greens and Free Democrats, compared with only 25% in this age group who voted for the Christian Democrats and center-right Social Democrats of Ms. Merkel, the traditional center-left party.

The most immediate effect will be felt in Parliament. About one in seven legislators in the outgoing Parliament were under 40. Now the ratio is closer to one in three. (In the US Congress, one in five members is 40 or younger. The average age in Congress is 58, compared to 47.5 for the new German parliament.)

“We have a generational gap, a very marked polarization that did not exist before: it is the under 30s against the over 50s,” said Klaus Hurrelmann, a sociologist who studies young people at the Hertie school of Berlin. “Young people want change and these two parties won the vote for change. “

The Greens finished in third place, while the Liberal Democrats came in fourth, both seeing their share of the vote increase. The split-screen quality of the race was unmistakable: Candidates from both traditional parties campaigned for the status quo while the Free Democrats and Greens unabashedly campaigned for change.

“It must not stay the way it is,” read a Free Democrats campaign poster.

Both parties are already signaling that they intend to change the old ways of doing business in German politics. Their leaders reached out – an unprecedented step – before meeting with representatives of the biggest parties ahead of the coalition talks, a process that began over the weekend.

Rather than publicizing their encounter with a leak in a newspaper or public broadcaster, they posted a selfie of their four leaders on Instagram, causing a sensation in a country where political debate has focused more on limiting social media than on their use to reach new audiences. .

Many young lawmakers who are now moving to Berlin, like Mr Lucks, say they will cycle or, in Ms Fester’s case, skate to work. Some are looking to rent collective housing. Others organize “beer pong” gatherings between parties to meet. And all are in regular communication with their constituents via social networks.

“What are your hopes and fears for a traffic light? Mr Lucks asked his Instagram followers this week, referring to the party colors green, yellow and red of the most likely government coalition of the Greens and Free Democrats with the Social Democrats at the helm.

Within hours, Mr. Lucks, elected for the Greens, had received 200 comments. “Maintaining this direct line with my constituents is really important to me,” he said. “Young people want to be heard. They felt betrayed by politics – their problems just weren’t taken seriously by those in power.

The two issues that seemed to animate young voters the most in the election were climate change and freedom, polls suggest.

“There is no bigger problem than climate change – it’s existential,” said Roberta Müller, a 20-year-old first-time voter in Berlin’s Steglitz district. “It doesn’t seem very democratic to me that the elderly decide – and indeed destroy – our future.”

Managing the pandemic also played a big role. Schools were closed and college classes moved online, as billions of euros in aid poured into the economy to keep businesses afloat and prevent large-scale layoffs.

“Hair salons were more important than education during the pandemic,” said Ms Fester, of the Greens, who at 23 is the youngest of 735 members of the new parliament. “There were long discussions about how barber shops could remain open, but universities and kindergartens remained closed.”

The pandemic has also shed light on key workers who are often poorly paid – and younger – while revealing how much Europe’s largest economy lags behind in developing the digital infrastructure needed to be competitive in the marketplace. modern and globalized world.

A younger cohort of lawmakers has also helped increase other types of diversity in what was previously a largely homogeneous chamber. There will be more women and lawmakers from ethnic minorities than ever before – and Germany’s first two transgender MPs.

At 31, Mr. Al-Halak, of the Free Democrats, could be considered one of the new “older” MPs.

Born in Iraq, he was 11 when he emigrated with his family to Germany, settling in a southern part of Lower Bavaria, which he will now represent in Parliament. He wants to be the voice of a new generation of Germans born elsewhere but who have successfully learned the language and a trade – he worked in a wastewater treatment plant – to become active members of society.

“I wanted to be an example for other young people that you can advance as a worker, no matter where you come from, what you look like or what religion you practice,” Mr. Al-Halak said.

Despite the fact that a woman was chancellor for 16 years, the percentage of women represented in parliament has increased only slightly from 31% in the previous legislature.

“I know there are people who are happy that we now have 34 percent women represented in Parliament, but I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate,” said Ms Fester, who included feminism. as one of his campaign problems. “The predominance of old white males is still very visible, not only in politics but in other areas where decisions are made and money circulates.

Small German parties have traditionally defined themselves by problems rather than broadly defined ideological positions. They also agree on several things; both sides want to legalize cannabis and lower the voting age to 16.

“There are now other coordinates in the system, progressives and conservatives, collectivists and individualists, which describe the differences much better than the left and the right,” said Ms Schröder.

However, the two junior parties disagree on many points. Greens want to raise taxes for the rich, while Free Democrats oppose higher taxes. Greens believe the state is essential to tackle climate change and social issues, while Free Democrats rely on industry.

“The big question is: will they cripple each other or will they succeed in incorporating the novelty and innovation that they represent into the next government? says Mr. Hurrelmann, the sociologist. “The balance will be: you get the climate, we get the freedom.”

This week, the new first-year lawmakers traveled to Parliament, the Reichstag, to learn and navigate the rules and procedures.

“The first few days have been very exciting,” said Ms. Fester. “It was a bit like an orientation week at the university. You get your travel card and you have to find your way – only it’s in the Reichstag.

Mr. Lucks said he still has to remember that everything is real.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said, “but it’s also a kind of humility: we have a great responsibility. Our generation campaigned for us and voted for us and they expect us to deliver. We cannot let them down.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reports.


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