When the study “Youth in Germany 2024” was presented a few weeks ago, there was a huge outcry: The study’s authors, including youth researchers Simon Schnetzer and Klaus Hurrelmann, had identified a clear lead for the AfD and the Union, and there was talk of a real “shift to the right” among 14- to 29-year-olds. A result that was heavily criticized by some election research institutes due to alleged methodological deficiencies.

However, the results of the European elections among first-time and young voters show that the trend identified by youth researchers is also reflected in real election results.

The majority among young voters, who for the first time also included 16 and 17 year olds, has changed almost like a landslide. The Greens, who had been the most popular party among under-25s with 34 percent in the 2019 European elections, dropped 23 points and ended up at just 11 percent, according to projections by Infratest Dimap. The Union, on the other hand, gained five points to 17 percent and the AfD by eleven points to 16 percent. And the SPD received just as much support from young voters, with nine percent, as did the pan-European eco-liberal youth party Volt, which was able to win over half of school classes in some places with a fresh election campaign on social media and striking messages (“Don’t be an asshole”).

For youth researcher Hurrelmann from the Hertie School in Berlin, the result is no surprise. “We know that young voters are not ideologically bound, but rather judge very directly based on issues,” Hurrelmann told WELT. “They choose the parties based on whether they plausibly and coherently stand for certain issues that are important to them at the time.”

The Greens did so well in the 2019 European elections because the issues of the environment and climate change were very much in the foreground – similar to the 2021 federal election. In addition to the Greens, the FDP also scored highly with young voters with its focus on digitization and civil liberties after the corona pandemic. “In the first year, it also looked like this was an exciting alliance of very different currents,” says Hurrelmann. But the discord that the government now radiates to the outside world is not resonating with young voters.

In addition, the issues of that time have now faded into the background. “At the top of the agenda are now the fear of the war spreading, the flow of refugees, the expensive and scarce housing, the worry that prosperity cannot be maintained and the pension system will collapse,” says Hurrelmann. On these issues, the CDU/CSU and AfD could currently score more points and more pointedly from their role in opposition. In addition, there is a general feeling that living conditions are getting worse rather than better.

“And the whole thing is being blamed, quite understandably and completely democratically, on the current government, which is unable to get everything together and is also arguing.” This may also be due to the impression that the implementation of environmental and climate goals is coming across as laborious and bureaucratic, for example in the heating law, says Hurrelmann. “But by and large, the Greens are now being punished at the ballot box for not taking up the other issues that are currently very important to young people and representing them in a similar, clear and credible way.”

The good performance of new and small parties such as Volt or the Animal Protection Party should also be viewed against this background, says Hurrelmann. “It is the privilege of first-time voters that they do not yet have to think in terms of personal consistency and ask themselves whether they are being unfaithful to themselves or have to justify themselves to themselves.” Therefore, young voters tend to exhaust the entire party spectrum. “Young people who go to the polls for the first time are, so to speak, spontaneous democrats,” says Hurrelmann. “They simply see what the parties stand for and then decide.”

For Hermann Binkert, head of the opinion research institute Insa, Volt’s rise is not proof that the party could seriously replace the Greens as the party of the youth. “Young people are generally more willing to try something different. But it would be a bit premature to conclude that this will now be the new youth party.”

Binkert also cannot see a clear shift to the right. “Some are more center-right and others more center-left. Five years ago, the Greens had the great advantage that the issue of climate protection was high on the agenda. When it comes to the current issues of peace, migration and inflation, they are weaker in terms of content. And the issue of migration is going really well for the AfD, just as the economic issue is going well for the CDU.”

For Binkert, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) has a special position, having achieved six percent of the vote among under-24s. “They also benefit from the migration issue, but at the same time are an interesting mix of social economic policy and conservative social policy – there has been a gap in this until now.” The scepticism about arms deliveries to Ukraine, which the BSW and AfD serve equally, also falls on fertile ground among young voters.

Youth researcher Hurrelmann nevertheless urges vigilance. “It is a core feature of democratic processes that the political mood sometimes goes more to the left and sometimes more to the right,” he says. However, it becomes problematic when young voters simply accept conspiracy-theoretical, nationalistic, authoritarian and even inhumane trends, warns Hurrelmann. “We have to look closely here.”