The three parties on track to form Germany’s next coalition government have been locked in tense negotiations over the future of Europe’s powerhouse. But regarding one seemingly radical issue, they are united – lowering the voting age to 16.
The Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have signed up to reduce the age at which Germans can vote from 18 in acknowledgement that an increasingly politicised generation of young people must have a future say in the way the country is run.
If their plan goes ahead, Germany would join Austria, the Isle of Man and Guernsey as the only other places in western Europe with such a low voting age. Scotland also allows 16 year olds to vote, though not in UK parliamentary elections. In a handful of German states this has recently been allowed also, but only on a local and regional level.
Such a move nationally could also pave the way for other countries to follow the continent’s largest economy.
A poll ahead of the German elections last month showed that young people were frustrated at not being able to vote in an election considered gamechanging and that was dominated by the over-50s, who made up the majority – 60% – of voters. Only 14% of voters were under 30, compared with 19% in 1961.
The Fridays for Future movement led by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is credited with contributing to a heightened political awareness among younger people that has had an impact on the mainstream parties of the left in particular. The coronavirus pandemic, with all its social, educational and economic consequences, is also seen to have contributed towards swaying the mood.
The Greens and FDP in particular, who secured the most votes among younger people, have stressed the importance of capturing their political enthusiasm.
In a widely quoted poll carried out by the environmental NGO Nabu, 59% of voters over 65 said before the 26 September vote they would not be considering younger voters’ climate protection interests when they cast their ballots.
In a subsequent mock election of more than 200,000 young people across Germany held just over a week before the real election, 21% of participants voted for the Greens, which was interpreted as an indication the party might have received considerably more than the 15% it secured in the official election had the voting age been lower.
The last time an adjustment to Germany’s voting age was made was 50 years ago when it was reduced from 21 to 18.
But even though the policy already appears in black and white on page 10 of the provisional agreement drawn up by the parties set to form the “traffic light” coalition – so-called due to the parties’ colours – in which it is described as “belonging to the realisation of a modern democracy”, it still faces a series of tough hurdles.
The voting age is established in article 38, paragraph 16 of the German constitution. Any attempt to change it requires a change in the constitution, for which a three-quarter majority in parliament is necessary. The prospective ruling coalition would have to secure support from other parliamentary factions for this to happen. While it can rely on votes from the leftwing Die Linke, this would not be sufficient. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is completely opposed to the idea and the conservative CDU/CSU alliance is largely against it.
Even as recently as May, when the Greens and FDP proposed a law change on the issue, the SPD voted against it in what was seen as an effort to keep its increasingly fractious partnership with the conservatives intact.
Thorsten Frei, the deputy leader of the CDU parliamentary group, said this week he was “very sceptical” about lowering the age and did not think conservative parliamentarians could be won over. “Without a doubt, there are many young people with a strong political interest,” he told the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. “But rights and obligations have to be in alignment, and the question is whether it makes sense, on the one hand, to be able to partake in decision-making about the future of our country, but on the other, to not be able to sign a mobile phone contract or watch certain films at the cinema without parental consent? I have my doubts.”
However, amid dwindling support, the party may also be forced to change course.
In the 1960s, the last time the issue was strongly debated and given voice in student protest, military service played a big role in the debate. It was argued that if young people were expected to defend their country, they could not be denied to right to vote, paving the way for a law change in the early 70s.
Even if the incoming government is not immediately successful in its plans, political analysts and observers are convinced it will be only a matter of time before public opinion leads to a change for which the Greens, SPD and FDP would look to take credit.
Michael Weigl, a political scientist at the University of Passau, recently told Bavarian Broadcasting: “Many young people don’t have the feeling that politics is decided with their interests in mind. And that in and of itself is of course already a sign that something has to change.
“I believe we will have a voting age of 16 before long.”