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Gray skies at the Bundestag
Gray skies at the Bundestag
Claudia Ehrenstein

BERLIN — It is becoming chic in Germany not to vote — and to make sure that everyone knows that you didn’t. It used to be just the poor and unemployed who failed to show at the polls, and, ashamed, they hid that fact. Now abstainers come from educated, well-off circles, and opinion polls warn there could be a record number of them in Sunday’s election when Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to win a third term.

In fact, this so-called non-voters’ party threatens to be a majority on Sunday. Horst Opaschowski, a researcher in Hamburg who has done extensive work on this topic, says that abstention from voting is often a deliberate decision. It represents not necessarily a disinterest in politics generally, but a distaste for the way that it plays out today.

“Politicians’ appearances are so perfectly staged that they seem very sterile,” Opaschaowski says. That puts off a lot of voters. In 1972, 9.3% of voters in Germany didn’t vote. By 2009, that number had climbed to 29.2%.

No more trust in politics

The real reason so many people don’t vote is because they are disillusioned with the established political parties, Opaschowski says. According to a poll in Hamburg, 86% of voters say they don’t feel the political parties represent them. They say that the political parties are more interested in maintaining their power than working for voters’ interests.

The disappointment with politics runs across age groups. Despite the fact that older citizens have historically been the most reliable voters, 90% of those 55 years old or older say they doubt the authenticity and reliability of politicians. Overall, 82% of Germans complain that politics has become more like a TV show, relegating voters to something like “talk-show viewers.”

Young voters are just as unhappy with the way politics have become a kind of scripted reality show — 86% of them are unhappy with the established parties. They are most likely to join grassroots movements or to vote with unconventional parties such as the German Pirate Party. These young voters typically make up their minds about who to support — if anyone — at the last minute, and decide based on their mood. Opaschowski says that has negative consequences for democracy.

Yearning for authentic politicians

“Citizens want politicians who are authentic,” Opaschowski says. But when a politician dares answer a question honestly, that can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently asked by a gay man why she was opposed to adoption rights for same-sex couples. She answered, “I have a hard time with it,” a response that sounds honest but that has been widely criticized.

At the same time, political parties try to overcome the disillusionment of voters through get-out-the-vote campaigns, which up to now have not met with noteworthy success.

Opaschowski doesn’t support mandatory voting, but he does think that Germany should offer voters the option of submitting a blank ballot. These ballots should also be counted, he says, and the corresponding number of seats in parliament should remain unfilled, so that there are real political consequences for alienating a large number of voters.

A rule like that would really teach the political parties a lesson, and it would provide a serious incentive for politicians to concentrate on their jobs, as set out in the constitution: To participate and help develop political goals for the citizenry, but not to dominate the process. That, Opaschowski says, would be good for German democracy.

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