Photo Gallery: Why Is Not Voting Suddenly Cool in Germany?

Foto: Wolfram Steinberg/ picture alliance / dpa

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.

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.

Too Cool, Too Smart to Vote

Too Cool, Too Smart to Vote

It's now possible to run into the new non-voters everywhere: at dental practices, in corner bars, in the Berlin art scene and online. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert speaks of a new type of "arrogant non-voter." These haughty individuals do not receive benefits for the long-term unemployed, and they don't complain that politicians and society have refused to give them a chance to improve their station in life. On the contrary, they come in the guise of philosophers and spend the bulk of their time in TV studios.

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently claimed in all seriousness that he didn't know when election day was. "People used to say that it was politically reasonable to vote for the lesser evil. But what should I do if I no longer know where the lesser evil lies?" asks Sloterdijk, who uses this statement to justify his abstention from voting. His fellow philosopher Richard David Precht says: "I don't personally find it important whether I vote or not." Precht maintains that this is "presumably the most irrelevant election in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany." The message here -- which comes across with an air of intellectual reflectiveness -- can simply be encapsulated as follows: "Everyone's stupid. Except me."

While the lower stratum of society feels abandoned by party-based democracy, Germany's elite are increasingly looking down their noses at them. Politics is too boring, too dumb and too grubby for them. They revel in their loathing of politics and see themselves as a cut above the rest. That might heighten the media appeal of certain individuals, but such models are disastrous for a vibrant democracy.

"I have to shake my head when I hear such things," says Lammert, "because, in my opinion, this is politically and intellectually below the level that the protagonists expressly lay claim to. I find this discrepancy equally astonishing and disappointing."

On Monday, Sept. 2, Precht took part in a panel discussion in Hamburg. The moderator asked him if he intended to vote. Precht took a deep breath and said: "I don't lack the courage to commit myself to a party, but rather the opportunity to identify myself with one." He then added that he wouldn't even be in Germany on Sept. 22, and noted that he personally didn't find it important whether he voted or not anyway.

Is Germany a 'Lethargocracy'?

Precht is one of the many celebrities currently making the rounds of Germany's TV shows and editorial pages in a bid to score points at the expense of democracy. The new non-voters include philosophers, artists, journalists and economists. They have embraced non-voting as a core value of their personal brand and see themselves as a social avant-garde. They are cleverly staging this calculated taboo violation as a rebellion that has taken up the fight against a supposedly degenerate system.

German historian Arnulf Baring -- who years ago encouraged his fellow citizens to "storm the barricades" and rebel against Germany's "fossilized party system" -- has already voted by absentee ballot, but he now appears to regret this. "I have a great deal of sympathy for the non-voters," says Baring, "because I'm aghast at how one-dimensional and evasive political debates are these days, and at how little the parties are doing to motivate voters."

Sloterdijk calls Germany a "lethargocracy," yet his own lethargy as a German citizen doesn't bother him -- in fact, he celebrates it in the media limelight. His professor colleague, economist Max Otte, adds another word to the field to justify his voter abstinence. He sees the state drifting toward a plutocracy, the rule of the rich.

These haughty rebels see themselves as the real defenders of democracy -- or, in any case, as better than the political parties and their pitifully mediocre candidates. The election campaign issues prompt at most a raised eyebrow among these critics. They want to debate the "big issues" -- and they bemoan a lack of vision for the future among today's politicians.

Precht calls it a "kids' stuff election campaign" and complains about the "un-philosophical politics" and the "collective loss of the ability to create utopias." He laments that the parties are becoming increasingly alike, and says all that remains is a single "mega-party" that favors "the environment and Europe, education, families, children and health." Similar arguments are presented by social psychologist Harald Welzer, who published an essay in SPIEGEL last May in which he refused to vote for the "lesser evil" and went on record as a non-voter.

Are the Parties Really All the Same?

The notion that all parties are the same is the top argument presented by non-voters. Admittedly, present-day Germany is able to manage just fine without the great ideological battles of the past, and this is reflected in the parties' political platforms. Still, it would be preferable if the opposition could offer strong alternative concepts on key issues, such as Europe's future and the Energiewende, Germany's push to abandon nuclear energy and promote renewable sources. Of course, it would also be nice if Chancellor Angela Merkel did not so pointedly avoid content-related debates. Democracy thrives on a contest of ideas, and this works best the more these ideas differ from one another, and the clearer the differences between their proponents.

But does the current lack of polarization justify the fact that an increasing number of voters are adopting the role of consumers -- and are morphing into couch-potato voters who would like to be "offered" something by politics instead of actively informing themselves about what the politicians are proposing? It may be true that Angela Merkel wants to put voters asleep. But does that mean that they have to allow themselves to be lulled to sleep?

If Precht, Sloterdijk and their comrades-in-arms just briefly leafed through the various election manifestos, they couldn't miss the differences. They would discover that the SPD and the Green Party are proposing a totally different tax policy than the parties of the ruling coalition -- Merkel's Chrsitian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). They would also find out that there is a difference between Germany's current statutory health insurance system, which allows individuals to opt for a private health insurance provider, and the proposed "citizens' insurance" (Bürgerversicherung), which would make statutory health insurance compulsory for everyone.

They would also know that the parties have divergent positions on the tax-splitting provision for married couples, adoption rights for same-sex couples and the issue of child care. Furthermore, they would learn that there are very different responses to the question of who should pay for the debts of crisis-ridden countries in Southern European. But all of this is overlooked by the non-voting propagandists. After all, it would demolish the theory that everything is the same anyway.

Essentially a Rejection of Democracy

But democracy is not a delivery service or an entertainment program. A democracy can expect a certain degree of knowledge from its citizens -- a modicum of involvement. Anyone who rejects this also refuses to contribute to its success -- and thus puts its future at risk.

All those who are complaining that the political platforms are not attractive enough, and that the parties are lame and boring, have done nothing to prevent them from becoming lame and boring. They are like stowaways grumbling that the ship isn't sailing fast enough.

They also overlook that, by taking such an attitude, they are placing themselves not only above the political parties and their candidates, but also above those who actually do choose to vote -- and, ultimately, above democracy itself. The refusal to choose the lesser evil is a rejection of everything that is unsightly and imperfect about democracy. It is a refusal to accept its key characteristic, the art of compromise, and indeed ultimately a rejection of this form of government.

When intellectuals like Precht complain that politicians "debate on setting the minimum wage one euro higher or lower," this reflects not only an arrogant disregard for the concerns of low-income earners, but also an ignorance of what democracy is all about. Democracy also involves intricate details that have to be hammered out in lengthy negotiations that often produce mediocre results -- and, particularly in Germany, this political system has been designed as an alternative to the "grand vision" forms of government.

By its very nature, democracy must always remain somewhat mediocre and unglamorous. People who are looking for something that sends them into raptures would be better off going to the opera or a football stadium. An alternative would be Plato's idea of a government of philosopher-kings -- in other words, a cabinet filled with people like Precht. That's arguably something that we really don't need.

The 'What About Me' Voters

These days, it's often forgotten that the opportunity to vote is a basic right that people have struggled for centuries to secure. Viewed in this light, it seems particularly odd that the proportion of non-voters is significantly higher in eastern Germany  than it is in western Germany, although millions of people in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) once took to the streets to demand free elections.

Andrea Hanna Hünniger, an author who was born in the communist GDR and now lives in Berlin, recently appeared on a popular German TV talk show and admitted that she has never voted. "Nevertheless, I'm not a victim. I'm young, educated and political," she said. But the 28-year-old complains that her generation has the feeling that it is no longer needed in this society.

Hünniger said that she noticed this when she attempted to participate in a debate on the show with current German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) and living political legend Egon Bahr (SPD), who is credited as the architect of West Germany's Ostpolitik policies aimed at normalizing relations with communist countries in Eastern Europe, launched under SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt some four decades ago. She said afterwards that it was a "shock," adding: "They had absolutely no interest in what I had to say." Hünniger says that this once again confirmed her belief that she is "being taken for a ride," as she says. During the show, she said: "I think politicians are liars." After the broadcast, Hünniger says she received emails from people thanking her for expressing exactly what they feel.

Whereas non-voters from the lower strata of society often lack the educational background to understand the increasing complexity of many political issues, Germany's new non-voters are exploiting their level of education to place themselves above the political system.

"I've never voted because politics has never been able to win me over," admits German actor Moritz Bleibtreu. In a democratic country, he has every right to withhold his vote, he insists, adding that he has never noticed that a change in government has made any difference in his life. "I'm simply not 100 percent won over by any party," he says.

But anyone who expects a 100-percent match has not understood democracy. Such critics are demanding the fit of a tailor-made suit when only off-the-rack clothing can be offered. Each and every voter has to decide for themselves which model fits best.

During the talk show, Hünniger had to admit that she hasn't attended a single election campaign event over the past few weeks. She only has a vague notion of the various party platforms. Given these circumstances, the reasons for her contempt of politics remain superficial.

If You Don't Play, Can You Still Lose?

From a statistical perspective, Germany's Prechts, Sloterdijks and Bleibtreus may have a negligible impact, but their publicly proclaimed position has considerable influence.

"Celebrity and intellectual non-voters are far too thoughtless about the consequences of their actions," according to Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, a Mannheim-based political scientist who conducts electoral research. "They make non-voting socially acceptable without offering concrete alternatives," he argues.

This attitude is emulated by people all across the country who are forming a range of new groups openly calling on Germans to not go to the polls. For example, there's a shadowy group in the southwestern city of Stuttgart that is decorating election campaign posters with "blah" speech bubbles -- not to mention the German League of Active Non-Voters (BAND), based in the southern state of Bavaria. BAND is headed by a dentist, and its some 100 members are mostly doctors, lawyers and teachers.

BAND President Franz Xaver Berger says it would be irresponsible to vote for "one of those people" because it gives politicians the same old excuse: "After all, you voted for us." Berger and his fellow non-voters believe that they have figured out how the political system works. You have to hit them with their own weapons, not with elections, they say. The real power in the state lies with lobbyists, they contend. Consequently, they want to recruit enough members to allow the organization to finance its own lobbyist in Berlin.

Merely Helping Those One Means to Hurt

Non-voting evidently goes hand in hand with a period in history in which nothing is apparently more cumbersome than obligations and commitments. It matches a generation that is more freewheeling and -- in contrast to its predecessor -- doesn't feel attached to either a particular milieu or political trend.

What's more, there is the sneaking suspicion that key political decisions are no longer made in Berlin, but by bureaucrats in Brussels or directly by speculators on Wall Street. A favorite non-voter adage is that you are more likely to be killed by a speeding car on your way to the polling station than to influence politics by casting your vote. Traditional non-voters used to say: Those at the top do whatever they want anyway. The new non-voters say: Those at the top have no influence anyway.

This lethargy has transformed large segments of the German population into selfish navel-gazers. They would much rather invest their time in projects that promise direct benefits for them and their families: a spruced-up day care center, green traffic islands in the neighborhood or perhaps protests against noise from aircraft flying overhead. Their main concern is their own immediate environment and anything that works to their advantage -- not the common good. And they are certainly not concerned about the current state of democracy.

Over two centuries ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that there are active citizens and wards of the state. According to Kant, active citizens have all their rights, in particular the right to vote. By contrast, he noted, wards of the state don't have this right. According to this logic, those who voluntarily don't vote are making themselves into wards of the state.

Contrary to what they would like us to believe, non-voters are not precipitating any long-awaited changes. Instead, they are merely bolstering the power of those who they complain about. They make the political parties even larger than they actually are. Eligible voters who stay home because they have had enough of Angela Merkel are, in effect, helping her to win a mandate for her third term in office. "It's not as if non-voting had no influence," says Bundestag President Lammert. "It has an influence -- though usually not the intended one."

Getting Back in the Voting Game

Klaus Fohrmann was also an upper-middle class non-voter. He heads a certified public accountant's office on the edge of Hamburg's trendy Hafencity district. The business has five rooms and four employees. Fohrmann leans back in his leather chair and delivers the usual non-voter rhetoric: "At a certain point, I thought to myself: This is all unbearable. No matter who is governing, it's always the same amateurs and ideologues at work. Expertise plays no role," he says. In the 1970s, Fohrmann briefly felt a close affinity for the Greens, but he was never in a political party.

Like all non-voters, Fohrmann has highly personal reasons for being disillusioned about politics. He was annoyed by the never-ending stream of new tax laws, the violation of professional secrecy when German tax authorities purchased data CDs listing details about tax cheats and, of course, the smoking ban!

Still, Fohrmann studiously ignores everything that politicians have accomplished during the same period of time.

For many years, Fohrmann spent his evenings venting his frustration about politics on Internet forums with fellow disgruntled voters. And he stopped voting in elections. This summer, though, it looks as if he's about to end his long-time voter abstinence and -- bucking the current trend -- return to the realm of the voters. He has recently found a solution that's just right for him: the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

"For me, it was such a relief that I could hardly believe it. Here were competent, disciplined people who finally wanted to change something," he says, referring to Germany's new conservative anti-euro party, which owes a great deal of its popularity to the message that professors and technocrats make better politicians, and that political parties are the root of all evil.

This Sunday, the populist AfD could benefit more than any other party from the anticipated low voter turnout. After all, when fewer people vote, this makes it that much easier for single-issue parties to clear the 5 percent hurdle for securing representation in the Bundestag.

Fohrmann now uses the word "we" when he talks about the AfD. He has joined the party and is handing out flyers in the Hamburg inner-city districts of Eimsbüttel and Barmbek. "I tell you, we're going to make it in (to parliament)," he says.

And, or course, whether he's right or not will also be decided by the non-voters.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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