Political Ennui A Flabby Democracy

Voter turnout is falling in local and national German elections. Political parties need to reinvigorate the electorate and reverse the decline, writes one Handelsblatt editor.
If only more people would do the same.

During Germany’s 2013 parliamentary election campaign, Angela Merkel, then fighting for re-election as chancellor, had to face questions from supporters on whether she was worried about voter turnout. Local elections a few weeks before in the state of Schleswig-Holstein had seen only 47 percent of citizens turn out to vote.

Ms. Merkel responded that she was sure it would not be that bad in national elections.

In the end, it wasn’t that bad, with turnout being a healthy 71 percent. But the growing trend of falling voter turnout is nevertheless alarming. Fewer and fewer people are turning out to vote, most notably in local elections but also for nationwide ballots.

In the east German states of Saxony and Brandenburg, turnout in 2014 was below 50 percent, and in the city state of Bremen on Sunday voting levels of 50 percent were the lowest ever in the west of the country.

Only 43 percent of registered voters took part in the election of a new European parliament in 2014. And on the federal level, it has been going downhill since 1983. Is democracy losing its supporters?

There should be a stronger incentive system that motivates parties to conduct mobilizing election campaigns.

Lively discussions can be held as to the reason for the drop. In Bremen, for example, the high rate of unemployment was blamed for causing resignation and voter apathy. The left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) won the poll as expected, but apathy meant that fringe groups marketing themselves as the caring choice, such as the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party and The Left party, fared disproportionately well.

Opinion pollsters from Infratest Dimap asked those who didn’t vote in Bremen why they didn’t want to have a say in the political future of their city state. The majority stated that politicians and parties will follow their own agenda anyway. Almost half of the respondents said that by abstaining from voting they can demonstrate how dissatisfied they are.

Some 40 percent said they didn’t vote because they thought the election was a foregone conclusion, an argument also put forward by mayor Jens Böhrnsen, who resigned after the SPD failed to do as well as hoped. So are elections and voting pointless?  

There is no simple answer to the question of why fewer and fewer people are voting. But there is probably no doubt as to who has the responsibility of mobilizing voters in our political system, namely the parties.

In our multi-party democracy, they “form a constitutionally integral part of a free and democratic system of government,” as its says in the Act on Political Parties.

They should promote “an active participation by individual citizens in political life.” They should also find and nominate suitable candidates – Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union has been failing for years on this point and therefore has been losing one city hall after the other.

Bremen Elections-01

Most of all, the parties are supposed to gather, pool and then represent opinions, polarize the issues and so encourage the citizens to vote on them on voting day. That was still the case in the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. Back then, 90 percent of those eligible to partake in elections still wanted to vote and influence the direction the country would take.

Since the parties have this special position, they receive financing from the state. This is coupled to voter participation but also to their own income, from revenues such as membership fees and donations. The cash paid for each vote gained accounts proportionally for only a third of the total financing, making falling voter turnout barely noticeable in party finances.

There should be a stronger incentive system that motivates parties to conduct mobilizing election campaigns, rather than the purposefully lackluster campaigns preferred by the CDU.  

If the defeat is felt in the pocketbook, then the battle over voters will be increased. It isn’t enough to express a word of regret on the evening of the elections and then return to business as usual. It’s about more than distributing flyers on the street or commissioning opinion polls. It’s a matter of finding out what the people’s burning issues are.

It used to be that members of clubs and associations discussed things. Today, in the face of growing disinterest in collectives, there are other places, from the park and demonstrations against whatever to Facebook. This is where a party must be. On top of that, the local party associations have to change so that politically interested people don’t take off after just a few visits.

Those who don’t make the effort should explain just why they still lay claim to power. Mr. Böhrnsen was right in resigning from his office, even if the reasons were questionable. He named the SPD’s election results as the reason. A concern over the well-being of democracy would have been a better argument.


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