Why So Many Educated Germans Will Skip Sunday's Vote

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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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