Germany's youth went to the polls a week ahead of general elections to cast their vote. Though it was a simulation, the U18 vote does indicate that young Germans are interested in politics. DW takes a look.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) are popular with young people, while hardly any adolescents know her coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). Those are the major takeaways from last Friday's under-18 election, a mock vote put on by a network of regional and federal youth organizations.
Merkel fared well with Germany's youth, with the Christian democratic parties CDU and CSU (the Bavarian offshoot) receiving 27.4 percent of the vote.
The U18 vote, a week ahead of general elections on September 22, saw the FDP receive 4.6 percent. The Left party got 7.6 percent, the Pirate party 12.2 percent, and the Green party was third with 17.3 percent.
Germany's second largest party, the Social Democrats (SPD), is usually the clear winner in the U18 vote, but this year they came in second with 20.7 percent.
"This really surprises me," said Eva Högl, an SPD member of the Bundestag, Germany's national parliament. "Apparently the chancellor is very popular with adolescents as well so it will be difficult for us to compete against that."
U18 elections increasingly popular
One of the youth groups that organized the mock vote is the Berlin-based education project U18. Marcus Lehmann, who heads the project, said he "never thought the youth vote would ever become this big."
Lehmann's interest in politics began while campaigning with a youth group ahead of Berlin's state election in 1995. "Back then I wanted to get young people interested in voting; I wanted to make the topic more lively and exciting," he said.
To do that, Lehmann simulated an election with 40 adolescents in what was then the troubled district of Wedding. He first went through party platforms with them, and then they had to vote themselves - with a ballot box and ballot cards, just like in the real election.
The idea quickly spread across Berlin. And, in 2005, the youth election was introduced on a federal level. More than 170,000 children and adolescents voted this year at over 1,500 polling stations across Germany's 16 federal states.
This year's election also offered just about everything you would see in a real elections: an election day, computer-generated predictions, election coverage and real political representatives who comment on the results.
Young people interested in politics
Despite the lingering stereotype that teenagers are indifferent when it comes to politics, Lehmann refuses to give up efforts to educate and inspire the U18 electorate. He said he has seen first hand how familiar children and adolescents can be with regard to politics, how interested they can be in environmental protection and animal welfare, and how thoroughly they can inquire if they haven't fully understood a party's program or the general election process.
So he set out to capture and foster this interest in schools, recreational facilities, and youth clubs. He developed project school days, lesson plans and mock ballot cards to explain how first and second choice votes work. He also invented games that introduce Germany's political parties and their positions, and organized roundtable discussions with politicians.
According to Lehmann, the political education in the run-up to the U18 elections is the core of the project. "Elections are only the smallest aspect of political engagement. Our goal is to create critically thinking young people capable of supporting democracy."
Education at core
The U18 project is decentralized and organized by regional youth councils and youth clubs. In the run-up to the U18 elections this year, Niklas Kuck, who works for a youth center in Berlin's Zehlendorf district, visited schools approximately once a week to moderate panel discussions. A recent debate featured representatives of the Green youth, the Left youth, the youth of the CDU and ninth grade freshmen from a Berlin high school.
According to Kuck, who studies political science, U18 wants to get young people talking about politics. It promotes the discussion of the following youth-related topics: "Do you think children with disabilities should go to class with you? Would you rather study or do an apprenticeship?" "What's your stance on drugs?"
"We want students to start thinking about which party best represents their views. Once they are allowed to vote in a ‘real' election in a couple of years, they shouldn't be standing in front of a ballot box not knowing anything about the parties."
Matty, one of the high school students who took part in the recent debate in Zehlendorf, told DW that he was now going to rethink his position on the Green party. "I didn't know, for instance, that the Green youth want all drugs to be legalized. I'm not so sure if I agree with that." Luca and Julian, two other ninth graders at the Zehlendorf high school, said they were interested in integration and the protection of the environment. They feel the Green party represents their views well.
"I always thought the Left party is pretty cool," said their classmate Abi. "But now I learned that a couple of leftists think banning the [far-right National Democratic Party] is wrong. I don't understand how you could be against such a prohibition at all."
Another student, Lara, was convinced by Merkel's CDU platform. She and most of her classmates agreed that it was useful to hear directly from the representatives of the parties' youth organization. "They understand us better and know how we think. Older people can't really relate as much. With younger people you're also less afraid to look bad if you ask a question."
Real parties are watching
It's not just children and adolescent who can profit from U18 election. "Politicians realize they can't appeal to adolescents with empty words, that they will get very clear questions and that clear answers are expected," said Lehmann, who adds that interest is growing in the U18 vote.
Now politicians even ask for an invitation to panel discussions. "They are really interested in attending these discussions, especially on a local level. They know: Those present today aren't voters, but tomorrow they will be."
Encouraged by their success, the U18 organizers now want to expand. Under the slogan "U18 goes Europe," their plan is to organize U18 elections in cities across Europe for the 2014 European elections.
According to Lehmann, preliminary discussions are underway. "From our base in Berlin, we've contacted other European cities about holding elections there. We also want to organize a youth exchange. We're exporting our ideas. And then we'll see where this all leads."
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