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BERLIN — They grew up with Beyoncé, iPods and Instagram. Now they’re roaming the underground tunnels of the Reichstag building, plotting to rock its cultural foundations.
The German parliament’s class of 2021 is the biggest, youngest and most diverse in history. While the young firebrands are giving the stodgy legislature a sorely needed breath of fresh air, their progressivism is already making party elders long for the good old days.
“Young people bring pressure to parliament and that scares some of the older delegates because we want to shake up this dusty place,” said 23-year-old Emilia Fester, the youngest member of the Bundestag and a member of the Greens.
Long dominated by white old men, the Bundestag is starting to reflect the broader demographic shift transforming Germany. Though equal representation is still far off (the share of female representatives is just under 35 percent overall) and the parliament chamber remains mostly a sea of whiteness, the largest parties on the left of the political spectrum — the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens — are undergoing a substantial transformation.
The new Bundestag, which held its first session last week, featured several “firsts,” including two openly transwomen, an openly bisexual woman and a black woman. The number of Social Democrats (the winners of the September election) with what Germans call a “migration background” has jumped from just under 10 percent to 17 percent.
The 736-member-strong body (second only in size to China’s National People’s Congress) is also the youngest ever. More than 40 percent of Green MPs are under 40, as are some 35 percent of the Social Democrats. They’re all after one thing — change.
“By being more visible, one can become louder,” said Hakan Demir, a 36-year-old freshman SPD MP. Demir, whose grandfather came to Germany from Turkey in the 1960s as a “guest worker,” represents Berlin’s hardscrabble Neukölln district. He says he’s been “fighting his whole life” to achieve such a position and wants to introduce a rent brake that would help rein in skyrocketing rents, as well as dedicate 2 percent of Germany’s surface area to renewable energy.
Just how much of the progressive wish list will survive the Bundestag’s sausage factory isn’t clear. Institutions like the German parliament, governed by opaque rules and procedures, have a way of squeezing the zeal out of even the most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Old boy’s blast
At last week’s opening session, conservative stalwart Wolfgang Schäuble, the longest-serving old white man in the Bundestag and the previous legislature’s president, fired a preemptive shot across the young rowdies’ bow, addressing the upstart progressives as “those who are disappointed by the inertia of democratic processes and demand immediate action.”
“Those who set goals and means in absolute terms are positioning themselves against democratic principle,” said Schäuble, who by the time Fester was born had already been an MP for more than a quarter-century.
So far, newbies have shown little appetite for the old way of doing things.
Before the inaugural session, the Greens’ Paula Piechotta took to Instagram to complain about what she called “the ugliest festival bracelet of all time,” a reference to a wristband in Germany’s national colors that all members were asked to wear.
Piechotta was objecting to what she saw as an expression of German nationalism. But the young MP’s rejection of the colors of the national flag — a symbol of democratic ideals rooted in the revolution of 1848 — raised eyebrows among older colleagues.
Some younger figures from beyond the Bundestag have also caused a stir. Green politician Cansin Köktürk declared on television that “it is a scandal that most of the first-time voters voted for the Free Democrats (FDP),” a pro-business party that her own party is currently in coalitions talks with.
While fiery anti-establishment rhetoric has long been a mainstay of the Greens, that’s not true of the SPD, which in recent decades has been a solidly center-left, establishment party. But its success in September’s election has ushered in a new wave of more progressive lawmakers, who are likely to complicate the life of Olaf Scholz, the SPD veteran poised to become chancellor.
Indeed, one of the biggest hurdles toward reaching a coalition agreement for both Scholz and Green leaders will be to pass the progressives’ smell test. The SPD’s youth organization has demanded its members play a central role in coalition talks and the Greens’ youth arm has warned against “rotten compromises” with the FDP.
The young “do bring in a new style of politics,” said 24-year-old Jakob Blankenburg, one of the SPD’s freshly elected MPs and long-time leader of the party’s youth organization in the state of Lower Saxony.
But Blankenburg, sitting in his office next to the Brandenburg Gate, put a positive spin on the prospects of young MPs from the three would-be coalition partners being able to work together. Their youth organizations have “many intersections” such as the legalization of cannabis or lowering the voting age, he declared.
Not everyone has been so upbeat.
Asked about a preliminary coalition negotiation document, the leader of the SPD’s youth organization and freshly elected MP, Jessica Rosenthal, took a swipe at party leaders for agreeing to an FDP demand not to increase taxes.
“What we can’t understand is … why the redistribution aspects — which are important to us — are not there,” she said.
Many of the new crop of leftist MPs say they haven’t given up hope on some of their signature issues, such as a wealth tax, and will continue to push against the FDP’s agenda in the coalition talks.
After all, they say, that’s why they were elected in the first place.
“I want to carry to the top what I know from the bottom,” said the SPD’s Anke Hennig, who worked as a taxi driver, cashier and daycare provider before becoming an MP.