May 15 held a shock in store. Elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, are always closely watched for bigger trends. But this was a trend no one had been hoping for: Only 55.5% of eligible voters cast ballots — the lowest turnout since NRW's founding after World War II. A mere 38.1% of voters in the Duisburg III constituency, the all-time low for NRW.
Helga Nickelsen said she stopped voting long ago. "All politicians are liars. They make promises, then break them," the 78-year-old said over coffee on a Duisburg shopping street. "They left us pensioners behind ages ago," she said.
Others said they had better things to do on election day.
"We went to the amusement park with the kids," one said.
"I had to work," said another.
One person "didn't know there was an election."
Most of the nonvoters DW reporters spoke with in Duisburg declined to give their names.
Voting is not compulsory in Germany. Also, regional elections are not as important as nationwide ones. Still, Frank Börner, a veteran politician with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), told DW that he is "frustrated." He won that troubled constituency, Duisburg III, with nearly 42% of the vote, once again. Still, he doesn't feel like celebrating. "There's this bitter aftertaste. That's the low turnout," he said.
Historic defeat for the Social Democrats
Since 2012, Börner has been a directly elected member of NRW's state legislature. This time, however, the SPD hemorrhaged votes. One reason was that many former SPD voters stayed home. They're new non-voters. The Social Democrats were handed a historically bad outcome, with only 26.7% of the vote.
The winners were the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), with 35.7%, and the Greens, at 18.2%. The two parties will presumably form NRW's next governing coalition. Frank Börner says he could take all that in his stride — if it weren't for the abysmal turnout in his own constituency.
Take for instance Duisburg's Marxloh district in the heart of the Ruhr region, a former coal-and-steelmaking powerhouse. Marxloh, part of the Duisburg III constituency, has since fallen on hard times. People who live here do not necessarily speak German. In most shops staff speak Turkish or Arabic.
Many say Marxloh is a prime example of failed integration and stalled structural change in the Ruhr valley — a region with high unemployment and child poverty. Many people here depend on welfare payments and have little education or professional training. In this district, of 4950 eligible voters, only 943 cast their ballots this time. That's 20.28%.
"Strictly speaking, that's no longer democracy," Börner said, dispirited. In light of the war in Ukraine, where people are dying for democracy, it's almost incomprehensible, he added. "Or just think of countries in Africa, where people travel a whole day to vote," Börner said.
Resentment over rising prices
Jonas Zici, 24, could have done so practically at his doorstep. "The polling station is in a school, right opposite our apartment," says the Duisburg native with a technical school diploma and ethnic Turkish parents. He knows Turkey's political landscape better than Germany's. "I'm just disappointed by German politics. Everything's getting more expensive. With these skyrocketing prices, my wife and I can barely make ends meet anymore," says the young non-voter.
Fifty-five percent voter participation in NRW is "dramatic," said Robert Verkamp, a professor, electoral analyst and senior advisor at the Bertelsmann Foundation. But it's also "not very surprising," he said.
Protest voters shun the populist AfD
One explanation is that the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has been losing ground. Vehrkamp said the AfD's breathless xenophobic slogans no longer had the same effect. "They have always made their biggest inroads in the neighborhoods where turnout had been especially low," Vehrkamp said.
He said the AfD drew "up to half of its votes from the ranks of nonvoters — but those people have now returned to the nonvoting camp because they're frustrated over AfD party infighting."
Turnout for regional elections grew continually in Germany until 2020. But it's been dropping ever since. From the beginning of the pandemic some two and a half years ago, there have been eight state elections. Participation fell in six of them. Only in two — Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Berlin — did voter turnout rise, and that was chiefly because the federal election was on the same day.
Analysts fear that the downward trend could continue into the next federal elections, in about three and a half years. At the last federal election in September 2021, more than fourteen million people (23.4% of eligible voters) did not take part. In the last European Parliament election in 2019, the number was even higher: 38.6%.
There is no such thing as a typical nonvoter, Vehrkamp said. One thing is definitely discernible, however: The higher people's incomes and education levels, the more interested in politics and likely to vote they are. Some constituencies see 80% participation in regional votes, while others only have 20% to 30% turnout, he says, adding: "these have to be reclaimed for democratic participation."
The SPD's Börner has identified three groups of people in his constituency who no longer bother voting. These are, first, those "who feel left behind without a job or on welfare," then "those without a good education or training, who can hardly find a job," and finally the "saturated ones," who earn well and "prefer to stay home on election Sunday and fire up their barbecues thinking 'I live well. I don't need the state'.”
Politics for the people
Nonvoters are a "problem for all of society," for which the parties are not exclusively to blame, Vehrkamp said. He has devoted much effort to find out how to lure these people back to the ballot box. Politics has to go where the people live "who have largely parted company with the process of political participation," he says.
"Why don't we take mobile polling stations into those city neighborhoods where voter turnout is so seriously low?" he asked.
Lowering the voting age to 16, which four states have already done for their elections, is also a possibility, Vehrkamp said. He also recommends "bundling elections." "Experience has shown that holding regional and federal votes on the same day increases turnout," he says, adding that postal ballots and digitalized voting are other, promising options.
Frank Börner finds such suggestions persuasive. He, too, wants to turn people who are recalcitrant or uninterested into active participants in elections. "Democracy needs democrats," he said.
This article was originally written in German.
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