Jens Spahn learned the hard way: Don’t mess with the elderly! The young politician, an otherwise unobtrusive parliamentarian from Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, incurred the anger of seniors when he criticized a 2008 pension increase.
This “election gift” would be at the long-term cost of the young, he warned. The reaction was swift and harsh. Spahn was criticized in media forums and inundated with insulting and threatening mail, while elderly party members moved to block his re-election.
Surprise result in Israel
Pensioners’ parties are largely a European phenomenon. While they exist in other Western industrialized nations, it is only on the Continent that they have experienced notable success. The exception is Israel, where the Pensioners of Israel (GIL) won seats in the Knesset between 2006 and 2009 and served as a junior partner in a coalition government. The party controlled the health and pensions ministries and initiated a plan to improve medical care for the elderly. In the 2009 elections, however, GIL failed to obtain sufficient votes for representation.
Chastened, Spahn kept quiet as the German cabinet voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to prevent any reduction in pensions, ending a decades-old law that linked pension payments to a rise or fall in average income. But during the rumpus, Spahn gained unexpected support from former German President Roman Herzog, who cautioned that the country needed to be careful not to descend into a
Rentnerdemokratie (pensioner democracy).
By 2050, more than half of potential voters within the European Union will be over 65 (Eurostat, 2005). The fear is of a gerontocracy where retirees could wield significant political power by sheer weight of numbers and vote for generous health care and pension systems at the cost of ever-fewer younger taxpayers.
Gray parties will continue to be a jack-in-the-box phenomenon that pops up from time to time Seán Hanley
An example of growing gray power is the emergence of pensioners’ parties. These have been a feature of modern European politics since Italy’s Partito dei Pensionati (PP) formed in 1987. Population aging and moves to bring back the welfare state have coincided with the creation of similar gray parties throughout Europe, with France, Iceland and Ireland being the only western European countries not to have seen such a movement arise.
In the Netherlands, the General Elderly Alliance (AOV) was represented in the Dutch parliament between 1994 and 1998. In Luxembourg, the Alternative Democratic Reform Party (ADR) has polled 10% in successive elections and become an established party, while Italy’s PP had an MEP in the European Parliament in 2004.
Parties have also emerged in post-communist Europe, notably Slovenia, where the Democratic Party of Pensioners (DeSUS) has held office as a junior partner in governments for more than a decade. In 2008, the Party of United Pensioners of Serbia (PUPS) gained representatives in the 2008 parliamentary elections and entered government as a junior member of a coalition. Jovan Krkobabic, the party leader, is currently a deputy prime minister and holds the social affairs portfolio.
Yet, pensioners’ parties typically remain a fringe phenomenon, gaining 1-2% of the vote in national elections. Many parties emerge briefly, experience limited success by extracting specific or short-term concessions, and then disappear. Rather than ever-growing political power, it is this pattern that
Seán Hanley, a senior lecturer in politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, expects to continue.
“Gray parties will continue to be a jack-in-the-box phenomenon that pops up from time to time, but generally they are not durable,” says Hanley, who recently contributed to
(Springer Verlag, 2010), a book on intergenerational conflict. In his chapter, “The Emergence of Pensioners’ Parties in Contemporary Europe,” Hanley examines the rise of gray parties and the probabilities that they will establish themselves as permanent minor parties. “There are certain circumstances that, if they come together, open opportunities, but their scope of success is usually as a minor party with ‘blackmail’ potential that disappears as established parties choke off growth.” A Yung Generation Under Pressure?
In an interview, Hanley says he believes politicians may be too scared of the gray vote. Although older voters turn out more reliably than the young, their influence in elections is often out of proportion to the fear that the raw demographic numbers create.
“There is research that shows there isn’t a coherent gray vote to the extent politicians believe. The myth is more significant than the reality. While they can be an important factor, politicians can perhaps afford to pay less attention to it than they actually do,” he argues.
Yet, the growing political strength of the elderly need not be expressed solely through the growth of pensioners’ parties. While such parties in Germany have had little success, the elderly are wielding increasing power within existing political parties at a time when overall membership is shrinking.
As Spahn found out, some 48% of CDU members are over 60, and they occupy positions of importance. In the rival Social Democrats (SPD), it is 46.7%. And as 35% of voters in the 2009 election were 60 years and over, German politicians normally tread lightly through the minefield of pension politics. “‘Apocalyptic demography’ is a phrase used to describe scare stories used to make political points about the welfare state and reform,” notes Hanley.
“It is true that population aging will change politics and that groups that vote tend to have disproportionate political power, but I think gerontocracy is overstating it. Rather, I prefer the label ‘graying democracies’ to describe the changes we are going through.”