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Germany lowers voting age to 16 for the European elections – but is it playing into the far right’s hands?

Ahead of the European parliament elections in June, Germany has lowered the age limit on participation to 16. This makes it the largest of just a handful of states in the EU to allow people under the age of 18 to vote. Austria, Belgium and Malta have already enfranchised 16 and 17-year-olds, and Greece is to allow anyone turning 17 in 2024 to participate in the June vote.

Around 4.8 million young Germans – plus about 300,000 young people from other EU member states who live in Germany – will be allowed to vote for the very first time. The group makes up a relatively small proportion of Germany’s overall electorate of 64.9 million, but is nevertheless larger than the population of many other European member states. And given that the 2019 European elections saw a significant rise in participation among young voters, we can be hopeful of a good turnout among this newly enfranchised group.

However, younger voters are being heavily courted by the far right, so this lowering of the voting age could end up boosting the performance of the Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD).

The latest data suggests that the 15-24-year-old age group has a broadly more positive view of the European parliament than the rest of the German population but that this positivity is in sharper decline than other age groups. Recent figures show 41% of Germans between 15 and 24 years old felt positively about the parliament, compared to 34% of the overall population. It had been at an all-time high of 51% just a few years ago in 2021. Similarly, while 75% of the younger age group believed in having a stronger European parliament in 2021, that has fallen to 51% in 2024.

The picture, however, is ultimately one that suggests ambivalence. This younger age group does still consider EU membership a “good thing” and 84% see the benefits for Germany. And while their level of satisfaction with democracy in the EU has shrunk to 58%, trust in the European parliament itself has risen to 63%.

Political TikTok

The European parliament is the European Union’s directly elected institution – and the only directly elected transnational parliamentary assembly in the world. These first-time voters in Germany will have a choice between 35 political parties but there is reason to believe that many of them will choose the AfD, a party with roots in soft euroscepticism but which now tends more towards hard eurosceptism, rightwing populism and partially even extremism.

This age group is politicised by TikTok. A vast majority receives political information via social media and does not use “traditional” political journalism. German political parties and politicians are relatively inexperienced, and therefore absent from the platform or unsuccessful at gaining traction. The notable exception here is the AfD. Unlike its rivals, the AfD has a very professional TikTok presence, directed especially at the younger generation. Heading into the European elections, it is the German political party with the most likes.

The AfD’s lead candidate for the 2024 European parliament election, MEP Maximilian Krah, is particularly popular on the platform and boasts more than half a million likes on his personal page. Krah is known for his ethno-nationalist opinions and has openly praised autocratic systems. Krah is under investigationby the German judiciary for taking payments from Russia in relation to his work as an MEP. One of his accredited parliamentary assistants has also been arrested and put under investigation after being accused of spying for China – although Krah himself will not be investigated for this.

Maximilian Krah sitting in the European parliament wearing translation headphones.
Krah has insisted he will continue as the AfD’s lead candidate despite investigations. EPA/Ronald Wittek

The AfD’s TikTok content appears to be geared towards an audience that is pessimistic about the future and prone to an emotionally charged and overtly simplistic political worldview. It is inflected with hate speech but also “jokey” in tone.

And sure enough, the AfD appears to be gaining traction among Germany’s young people. According to a recent study, Jugend in Deutschland 2024 (Youth in Germany 2024), about 22% of young people aged 14 to 29 would vote for the AfD. Many of these will be in the group of first-time voters in June.

This signals a potential major shift in voting behaviour. In the 2019 European elections, 30% of German voters aged 18 to 29 voted for the Greens and 13% for the CDU/CSU, the centre-right Christian democratic political alliance. All other parties received less than 10% – and the AfD came in seventh with 7%.

A striking gender gap is also visible. Young women were more inclined to vote for the Greens while young men opted for conservative or liberal parties. This gender gap is particularly strong when it come to the AfD which is a rather “masculine” party when it comes to its candidates, its voters and its programme. In the 2019 European elections 14.6% of men (of all ages) voted for the AfD, but only 7.6% of women.

Leaning into this appeal, Krah, who prides himself on being the father of eight children from three different partners, liberally hands out dating tips on TikTok. In one post he advises: “Don’t watch porn, do not vote for the Greens, enjoy fresh air, go out into the fresh air, stand up for yourself, be self-confident, look straight ahead. … Real men are right-wing, real men have ideals, real men are patriots, then it works out with the girlfriend.”

Whether this apparent appeal translates into votes among the newly enfranchised young people of Germany – and especially its male teenagers, will become apparent in the coming weeks. Other parties will have to take note if they want to avoid leaving a young generation prone to Eurosceptic and anti-democratic agitation.

This article has been updated to correct an error introduced in editing. The previous version stated the German population is 64.9 million when it should have stated that the electorate is 64.9 million.

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