Iraq situation affects German youth vote

MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent

DRESDEN, Germany, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder edged into a lead of 1 percent in the Infratest opinion poll released Tuesday, after trailing his conservative opponents throughout the year, with the election 12 days away.

Many commentators attributed Schroeder's momentum to his performance in a TV debate Sunday against his challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber. Schroeder made his firmest declaration so far that German troops would not take part in any U.S.-led attack on Iraq, which has helped bring home many of his left-wing and pacifist voters who had been flirting with minor parties.


It also seems to have to have revived the chances of Schroeder's Social Democrats among young voters, and particularly the 2.5 million first-time voters who have turned 18 since the last election four years ago.

"We are seeing a real revival of interest among students and young people generally, with Iraq becoming an important issue for them. Young people really do not want a war," Klaus Hirschnitz, who runs the Social Democratic Party, known locally by the initials SPD, in the formerly East German city of Dresden, told United Press International.

"What is interesting is that once young people get interested in one aspect of our campaign like Iraq, they then tend to get involved in other issues like youth unemployment, or our efforts to persuade companies to offer more apprenticeships, which have been declining lately," Hirschnitz added. "For a party like ours, with 750,000 members, this is an important investment. If you get a young person to join the party, they tend to stay with the party for years to come."


Young voters have become a major concern for all parties, after a steady decline in their interest in politics. This year's Shell Youth Study 2002 -- which documents German youth trends and their attitudes to politics -- found that a third of the 2,500 young people interviewed between the ages of 15 and 25 described themselves as "interested in politics" and about 35 percent said they were sure they wanted to participate in the elections.

The trend follows a general dip in interest in politics among youth, which began in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1999, the number of youth interested in politics fell from 57 to 43 percent, and has drooped even further since then. As a result, the various parties, youth organizations and TV rock music channels have made a big effort to get young people to vote this year.

"The Parliament is the most powerful club in Berlin -- and you decide who gets in!" proclaims a poster with a tough-looking bouncer standing against the silhouette of the Reichstag parliament building and putting out his hand to block entry.

"Vote 2002 -- Without a Voice, Nobody Can Hear You" says another poster, depicting a popular German pop singer looking gravely at the camera with her lips stitched together.


Professor Hans Merkens of the department of Empirical Educational Science at the Free University in Berlin says that young people are active in voluntary work and in specific issues, and their apathy is aimed at official politics and the political system.

"There's a high amount of youth unemployment in the country and there's very little state support to promote youth. Apart from that -- and maybe Iraq -- there's no other topic in this election that catches the interest of young people," Merkens said.

The pro-business Liberal Free Democrats, a party known by the initials FDP and which has traditionally worked hard to attract young voters, have largely failed with their "fun society" campaign. The FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, ran a campaign filled with gimmicks, snazzy slogans and a yellow campaign mobile home in the hope of luring younger voters.

Henriette Volk, 24, of the student project group "Politikfabrik" at Berlin's Free University, is having more success with a new a Web site called "Wahl Gang" or "way to the elections" to motivate young people to vote. Her goal is to "market the elections like a pure advertising product and not point a moral finger towards today's youth. That's the only way to get their attention."


Apart from posters, cartoons, party programs and portraits of young first-time voters, the Web site features a "wahl-o-mat" helps young voters find out which party comes closest to representing their interests. Users are asked questions such as "Should marijuana and hashish be legalized?" or "Should immigrants be forced to take state-sponsored integration and language courses?" The wahl-o-mat then shows which political party best reflects the user's views.

Volk says the Web site has been a success, getting more than 1,000 hits a day. But she noted said that beyond apathy there is also widespread ignorance level among young people with "several not even aware that the elections take place on Sept. 22."

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