Younger Germans Are Starting to Take Over. Finally.

The bloom is off the rose for many traditional parties.

Photographer: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

After reaching a hard-fought coalition agreement, both of Germany's major political parties are at a nadir: They've never been so unpopular, and wouldn't even manage to scrape together a majority if a new election were held today. Germany, though, is one among many democracies where the political system is feeling old and tired: Throughout the West, a generational change appears to be overdue.

The German political system, set up after World War II with the active participation of the war's Western winners, is one of the most modern and rationally designed ones in the world. Though the absence of term limits for elected officials may look somewhat undemocratic to people used to such restrictions, such as U.S. citizens, it's standard European practice and it's geared toward sustaining peace — an important goal given Germany's history. At least one piece of recent research shows that countries with term limits are more conflict-prone: Lame duck leaders tend to feel less accountable. 

This design advantage, however, does have a flip side: The strong incumbency advantage gets in the way of renewal in parties that get access to governing. The party membership grows older along with the leaders who stick around. In 2006, some 47 percent of the members of recently elected Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party and 45 percent of the members of its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), were 60 or older. In 2016, with the same parties forming the government, 51.5 percent of CDU members and 54.3 percent of SPD ones were older than 61.

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