German youths yearn for change after a lifetime of Merkel

© John MACDOUGALL Chancellor Merkel’s ‘I’ll take care of you’ demeanour earned her the popular nickname ‘Mutti’ (mummy)

For millions of young Germans, Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only leader they have known, a beacon of stability in a world plagued by uncertainties. 

But as her 16-year tenure comes to end, some say her slowly-slowly approach stymied progress on burning issues such as climate protection and the digital race. 

Voters under the age of 30 make up 14 percent of the electorate in Germany, which goes to the polls on Sunday. Eager to see change on climate issues, many are shunning her Christian Democrats (CDU) party in favour of the Greens. 

Some accuse the old-guard parties — like the CDU or the centre-left Social Democrats — of failing to bring about meaningful change.

“She has completely failed on digitalisation, the climate crisis has worsened, the gap between rich and poor has widened and she has done nothing about inequality of opportunity in schools,” said Christophe Dierckx, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Frankfurt. 

He added that Merkel has largely ignored his generation and their future, practising conservative politics “at its worst”.

He’s not the only young person to feel sidelined.  

Merkel’s CDU policies are “mostly aimed at older people”, Kaan Ogurlu, a 19-year-old Berlin law student, said.

A youth-led movement has in recent years made a vocal push for Merkel’s government to step up climate protection, protesting on Fridays in school strikes inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Young activists have also taken the government to court to force it to improve environmental targets.

After a TV debate between the three main candidates to replace Merkel last weekend, just 11 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 picked the CDU’s Armin Laschet as the winner, with 52 percent opting for the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock.

Besides anger over the climate, many young people have felt let down by the German government during the pandemic, with a lack of equipment hampering remote learning and promised ventilation systems for classrooms largely failing to materialise.

– ‘Aura of security’ –

But for others, Merkel was a much-appreciated steady hand amid a cascade of crises. 

She offered stability in the face of financial turmoil in 2008 and the refugee influx of 2015, when Germany left its doors open to hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Syrians fleeing war and conflict. 

For young people, especially those in their 20s, the chancellor “with her reassuring, calm way of governing has been very valuable”, sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann of Berlin’s Hertie School, told AFP.

She has an air of “I am your mother, I’ll take care of you”, according to the expert — a demeanour that earned the veteran politician the popular nickname “Mutti”, or mummy.

Her exit will be a major change for many young people.   

“Merkel has always been there. I just took it for granted that she would take care of everything,” said Robert Mally, a 28-year-old technician from Cologne.

For Maria Elliott, a 26-year-old biology student from Berlin, Merkel “was good in a crisis”. 

“She had presence and an aura of security,” she said. 

Yet many among the younger population say it’s time for a new government without the CDU.

“A new party at last, or rather a new coalition, would be great,” said Mally, calling for increased focus on the climate crisis and inequality.

Their votes could have a real impact on the elections, which are still wide open with the CDU polling just a touch behind the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Greens in third place.

Although youngsters will not be sorry to see Merkel go, Elliot has one thing to thank her for.

“After 2015, my mother and stepfather adopted a young Afghan refugee,” she said. In this respect, the chancellor had “a direct influence on my life, and a very positive one”, she added. 

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