Are seniors shafting younger German voters?
Are young German voters getting the short end of the stick because the country’s political leaders fall over themselves to placate senior citizens?
Or is it simply a case of democracy pure when politicians listen attentively to what seniors demand because they are the group that votes more faithfully than any other age group?
And they’ve got clout. No age group goes to the polls in such strong numbers as the 60+ group — a full 85 percent of the seniors cast their ballots in the last election in 2005 and their turnout will likely be as high again later this month. No other age group comes even close and the overall turnout in 2005 was 77 percent. The lowest turnout was the 21-25 age group where 66 percent voted.
One interesting theory for their high level of participation, as was explained to me here for this story by the mayor of Goerlitz, Joachim Paulick. Goerlitz has become a haven for seniors and he said they vote in such large numbers because that they have lived through a world war, a Cold War and up to two dictators. “The seniors have gone through so much in their lives and anyone who’s endured (all that) has an intense interest in exercising their right to vote.”
The big taboo issue is pensions. And – the government gave seniors an unexpected 3-billion euro present in July by raising pensions 2.4 percent this year even though inflation has tumbled towards zero.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up to such a powerful group. But Jens Spahn, a 29-year-old member of the Christian Democrats in parliament, has faced the wrath of seniors and many in his own party for suggesting Germany cannot afford such pension increases: “Giving seniors a present ahead of elections will cost younger generations a lot of money in the medium and long term.” Spahn told Der Spiegel magazine that he’s been called “twerp” and many rude things by seniors, and party members, ever since. He said he gets about 10 pieces of hate mail each day.
Do any of the parties benefit most from the seniors? The conservatives used to win over 50 percent of the senior vote every election but that has slipped slowly but steadily in recent years as the SPD has made in-roads. Ex SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder managed to keep his job in 2002 by a slim 6,000-vote margin thanks in no small part to a late shift his way by the seniors. Schroeder skillfully whipped up fears of war in Iraq — a major issue for seniors who survived World War Two as children — and drove the conservative share of the seniors down to a record low of 45 percent.
“They’re a ‘gray power’ that scares the daylights out of politicians and secretly dominates younger generations through their sheer numbers,” wrote Franziska Reich in Stern magazine recently. “Germany is turning into a ‘retiree democracy’.”
Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Or just a political fact of life in Germany?
PHOTO: Chancellor Angela Merkel greets senior citizens at a rally in the eastern German town of Goerlitz. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch