Democracy's Dropouts The Quixotic Rise of German Non-Voters

With the help of intellectuals and celebrities, not voting has recently become de rigueur in Germany. But declining voter turnout harms democratic legitimacy, bolsters the power of those who prompted discontent and could sway Sunday's election.


By , and

The movement's headquarters is located in a small shop front on a side street in the western German city of Cologne. It has bare white walls and contains little more than a few flyers. The banner that hangs over the entrance, though, boldly proclaims a new era: "The sleeping giant is awakening."

The sleeping giant refers to Germany's non-voters, and Werner Peters, the chairman of the Non-Voters' Party, intends to wake them up. Peters has rented the premises until Sunday, Sept. 22, when Germany will hold national elections. He hopes that the giant will be on its feet by then.

Peters is an intellectual. He runs Cologne's Hotel Chelsea, writes books and regularly hosts philosophical salons. It was already 15 years ago that he founded his Non-Voters' Party to highlight the weaknesses of party-based democracy. Throughout all those years, few took notice of him -- and even if they did, it was usually only to cast an amused glance in his direction. But now, at age 72, he has noticed a turnaround in the country. "I can see that my idea has made a decisive breakthrough," he says, adding: "The time has come."

Peters believes that his fellow Germans are finally open to his views. "They have recognized the parties as self-perpetuating machines that don't convey the will of the people, but rather the will of the apparatuses," he says.

Peters was the media's darling this summer. He was a guest on talk shows and interviewed on numerous occasions.

The sleeping giant is awakening. The time has come. The tone is vaguely reminiscent of something a small religious sect would proclaim, yet it concerns a group that could actually turn out to be of colossal importance this Sunday.

It is people like Peters who are stirring up every imaginable aversion to "politics" and "the system" during this election campaign -- and absolving potential non-voters of any sense of guilt should they opt to steer clear of the polling stations on Sunday. Never before in Germany have intellectuals, authors and artists ranted like this about parties and their candidates. On every channel, they are given an opportunity to unfurl their fundamental criticism of the system.

A Record Lack of Democratic Legitimacy

The argument seems to be making headway: Voter turnout has been dropping precipitously in Germany, from over 82 percent in 1998 to only 70.8 percent in 2009. As at the last election, this year the number of non-voters is expected to surpass the number of voters in favor of the most successful party. Manfred Güllner, the head of the Forsa polling institute, warns of a non-voter record. "There is reason to fear that fewer than 70 percent of eligible voters will go to the polls," he says. If the non-voters were included on a conventional TV graphic, they would have the highest bar in the chart. They should actually be touted as the true winners of the election -- if it weren't for the fact that this also represents a defeat for democracy.

Graphic: Declining Voter Turnout in Germany

Graphic: Declining Voter Turnout in Germany

Non-voting has concrete consequences. For instance, during the cliffhanger election of 2002, Edmund Stoiber, the conservatives' candidate for chancellor, came up only some 6,000 votes short of winning the strongest faction in parliament. Indeed, non-voters decide on chancellorships and government coalitions just like their active fellow citizens, the voters. But the indirect impact of non-voting is even more damaging because it severely tarnishes the political culture and the appeal of democracy.

If the predictions of opinion pollsters come true, the next German parliament, the Bundestag, will have the weakest democratic legitimacy of all previously elected parliaments. And, as such, its decisions will be even less widely accepted. What kind of nation is this where so many are unwilling to clear even the lowest hurdle for democratic participation and put an "X" next to a candidate's name?

This aversion runs so deep that, according to an opinion poll by Germany's INSA Institute, even if there were compulsory voting in Germany, one out of every two non-voters would not vote or would void their ballots.

This stands in stark contrast to the early years of West Germany. In the wake of the political and moral collapse of the Nazi era, West Germans strove to present themselves -- to the world, but also to themselves -- as model democrats. At the time, voting was a point of honor for the vast majority of them. They wanted to make the most of this second chance after their first tragic experiment with parliamentary democracy during the Weimar Republic.

No Longer Just the Poor and Poorly Educated

Nevertheless, non-voters are not a new phenomenon in Germany. After the initial decades in which Germans eagerly flocked to the polls, voter turnout has gradually declined. Non-voters traditionally consisted primarily of the poor and poorly educated, who had long since bowed out of the political discourse because they blamed "those up there" for their lot in life. The INSA Institute found that 41 percent of all unemployed respondents do not vote. But there are also former regular voters who are deeply disappointed with their old favorite parties and simply can't bring themselves to once again give them their votes. For instance, many former supporters of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have avoided the polls since the introduction of Agenda 2010, a package of labor market and welfare reforms pushed through a decade ago by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD.

Now, a third group has emerged that lends a new dimension to non-voting: The new non-voters are well-educated and often affluent.

It used to be embarrassing for Germans if they were too lazy to go to the polls, had missed the election or hadn't managed to find a party they were willing to support. But the new non-voters have no such qualms.

"There has been a change of mood among the public," says INSA pollster Hermann Binkert. "You no longer have to be ashamed to be a non-voter." Only 7 percent of the non-voters surveyed on behalf of INSA had to deal with criticism from friends and relatives, while 57 percent indicated that friends and family don't care whether they vote or not.

Now, disdain for politics and parties has reached the higher echelons of German society, promulgated and refined by a handful of TV intellectuals, but also by a growing number of less prominent activists.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 09/20/2013
1. The will of the people does not count
Germany only offers a choice between various party programs, but not the representation of public will, in so far it is not democratic! That is the real reason many do not vote. The whole system needs a vigorous clean up based on the definition “For, By and Through the people", rather than by the parties for the parties.
foxwhite1 09/20/2013
2. Non-Voters
Non voting is increasing in record numbers throughout the western world. Over 8 million registered Republicans did not cast a vote in US last election. The reason is simple, both parties in the US and many in the EU are simply various shades of gray. In Germany and the entire EU, people now, more than ever feel disenfranchised, with dictates being made by a central government with no accountability and who seeks to controls everything.
danm 09/20/2013
3. optional
Do you think the hard core, cynical advocacy of the press might have something to do with people just tuning out? No one can get a straight story. No one can do anything to help. All we can do is pick between one liar or another without the benefits of any details or facts we can trust. In my opinion, it is a miracle that so many people vote. Once people learn a game is rigged, enthusiasm usually suffers. Why should this be any different?
campbelbill 09/20/2013
4. Voting
I live in Australia, where voting is compulsory (there is a small fine if you don't vote, but I know that the Australian Electoral Commission is not at all keen to enforce this if you can come up with even the flimsiest excuse for not doing so, and not even then if you can't, or don't. However, compulsory voting at least makes people think about current political issues, and gives them no excuse when they complain about the Government. They can always say that they didn't vote for them.
ukarlt13 09/20/2013
5. The will of the people...
Interesting thought but irrelevant. I submit that in NO democratic country has any main political party reflected the will of the people. In fact, in democracy, it is the political parties that try to convince/brain wash the people in following the respective party's doctrines. If they can't do that, the parties try to white wash their doctrines to make them "more" palatable. Failing that, they try to bury it. Germany isn't unique here - all western democracies operate this way. They show you the politicians smiling trustful face but never tell you what he/she is truly thinking. Voting doesn't change anything (except perhaps change the people at the top ... but not the ideas); not voting achieves nothing but makes an individual just a bystander.
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