Germany’s OK Boomer Moment

Millennials on the left and right are getting tired of their country’s politics of centrism—and trouble in the governing coalition shows it.

Kevin Kühnert gives a speech during an extraordinary congress of the Social Democratic Party in Bonn on Jan. 21, 2018.
Kevin Kühnert gives a speech during an extraordinary congress of the Social Democratic Party in Bonn on Jan. 21, 2018. Germany's divided Social Democrats will hold a crunch vote on whether to pursue a coalition deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, or plunge the nation into political turmoil. At the extraordinary congress, 600 delegates from the centre-left SPD and its 45-member board will have their say on entering into formal talks for a renewed alliance with Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc. / AFP PHOTO / SASCHA SCHUERMANN (Photo credit should read SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP via Getty Images) Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images

The youth wings of Germany’s major parties, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), are getting fed up with the politics of the center. Younger party functionaries such as Kevin Kühnert of the SPD and Tilman Kuban of the CDU yearn for the era before the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, when there was a clear left-right political spectrum, and they want their parties to rediscover their ideological moorings. They are acutely aware that drifting toward the center has cost their parties in votes as their generational cohort turns away from catchall parties in favor of the Greens or even the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

For 10 out of the last 14 years, the CDU and SPD have governed together under Merkel. The most recent grand coalition was born out of necessity after Germany’s federal election in 2017. Neither of the two major parties could build a feasible majority with junior partners because of their own losses and voter fragmentation. The only way to cobble together a government was for the two largest (and supposedly ideologically opposed) parties to combine forces.

Unpopular from the start, this iteration of the grand coalition seemed predestined for a short shelf life. Earlier this month, approximately half of the 430,000 SPD members sent in ballots to select a new leadership team for their party. When results were tallied on Nov. 30, the underdog duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who lean left, had edged out the more moderate team of sitting Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz. Walter-Borjans and Esken had explicitly campaigned on renegotiating the coalition agreement. Among other things, they want the coalition to do more to raise the minimum wage, protect the climate, and spend more on infrastructure—all ultimatums that are anathema to the CDU. They have since backed off pulling the plug on the coalition immediately, but their demands do not bode well for the staying power of this government.

Walter-Borjans and Esken’s surprise win was in no small part due to the handiwork and horse whispering of Kevin Kühnert, the head of the Young Socialists within the SPD. He counts among his followers 80,000 foot soldiers in the Young Socialists who are keen to push the party to the left. He has railed against the current government for not delivering on affordable housing, renewable energy, or labor protection. And he has argued that grand coalition has diminished the SPD’s visibility and viability ahead of the next federal election in 2021. That claim is hard to refute, considering that SPD is currently polling at or close to 15 percent, down from capturing 38.5 percent of the vote in 2002. Kühnert’s strident brand of social democracy will have even a greater effect on the party since at this weekend’s party convention he was named as one of the vice chairs to help steer the leadership team of Walter-Borjans and Esken, who were also crowned as the new chairs of Germany’s oldest political party.

The conservatives, for their part, have put their internal struggles aside for now. But before last month’s CDU party convention, the chair of the Young Union of the CDU, Tilman Kuban, openly questioned whether Merkel’s anointed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was chancellor material. Soon after Kramp-Karrenbauer took the helm of the party, the CDU joined the SPD in its downward spiral at the polls. Both parties likewise suffered a historic loss of support during the European Union election in May and performed poorly in state elections this fall in former East Germany.

Strong factions in both parties are keen to break up their coalition but would rather have the other make the first move. Neither wants to get punished by voters in the case of snap elections or lose further ground to the AfD and Greens. Their fears might be warranted; according to ARD-Deutschlandtrend, 64 percent of the German electorate would like the grand coalition to keep going until 2021. Moreover, political instability in Berlin wouldn’t be a good look when Germany assumes the EU presidency next July.

Kühnert and Kuban may not be your typical German millennials—few others have made it to the halls of political power—but their frustration with the status quo and fearlessness in bucking the established leadership reflects their generation’s disdain for the two parties that have been in power since they came of voting age. Voters under 40 don’t constitute a huge bloc, approximately 24 percent of the population, but they wield outsized influence because of their ability to capture headlines and mobilize movements.

Shortly before the EU election, an entertainer in his late twenties named Rezo released a YouTube video titled the Destruction of the CDU. For nearly one hour, the blue-haired social media provocateur castigated the conservatives for their policies on climate change and social inequality and implored viewers to refrain from voting for the CDU and SPD. The video went viral with 16 million views, dominated the news cycle, and caught the major parties off guard. The Greens, which saw their vote share double to 20.5 percent in the EU vote, surely profited. Nearly a third of Germans under 30 cast their vote for the Greens.

The issue of climate change in particular has galvanized young people in Germany to take part in weekly demonstrations called Fridays for Future. Many government officials scoffed as that movement, launched by the teen activist Greta Thunberg in Sweden before it spread to Germany. CDU Education Minister Anja Karliczek criticized skipping school for the climate while Economic Minister Peter Altmaier had an “OK, boomer” moment when students confronted him at a demonstration earlier this year. Skeptical politicians aside, in September 1.4 million people participated in climate strikes all over Germany, and a majority of Germans believe that the demonstrations are having a political effect.

With the current grand coalition reaching its midterm mark, Merkel and SPD Family Minister Franziska Giffey unveiled a policy plan for German youth. The plan identified as priorities for young voters over 100 topics including mobility, housing, culture, and technology. In a post-grand coalition Germany, the conservatives and social democrats have learned that they can’t afford to ignore young voters. They are not shy about calling out lip service on issues such as digitization and climate change. The grand coalition might offer stability, but Kühnert and Kuban’s desire for more ideological differentiation might just be better for German democracy in the long term.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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