The headquarters of the movement is on a street in Cologne. The floorspace is 20 square metres, the walls are white and bare, and it contains little more than a few flyers. The banner above the entrance, though, promises a great new era: “The sleeping giant awakes.” The sleeping giant is the non-voter, and Werner Peters, Chairman of the “Party of Non-voters” wants him up. Peters is an intellectual who has written books and is a regular presence at philosophical discussions. He founded his Party of Non-Voters 15 years ago, to point out the weaknesses of multiparty democracy. All these years people have either hardly taken notice of him, or were merely amused. Today, at 72, he feels that something has shifted in the country. “I notice that my idea has now achieved a breakthrough,” he says. “The time is ripe.” The time is ripe – it smacks of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a slogan from a minor sect. Yet it’s about a group that could actually turn out to be gigantic this Sunday.

As already happened in 2009, the number of non-voters in this federal election could be greater than the number of votes for the most successful party. Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa research institute, is warning of record abstentionism. “Fears are that less than 70 per cent of the eligible voters will turn out.” One [could] speak of a true election winner if that would not be a defeat for democracy at the same time.

Once upon a time [it was] a matter of honour to go out to vote. After the political and moral collapse in the Nazi era, the Germans wanted to present themselves as exemplary democrats – abroad, and to themselves as well. They wanted at the least to use their second chance at it, after so tragically gambling away their first opportunity in the Weimar Republic.

Nevertheless, voter abstentionism is not a new phenomenon in the Federal Republic. After the first decades of civic enthusiasm for elections, turnout gradually sank, and by the last elections, in 2009, it had fallen to 70.8 per cent. Till now, non-voters were mostly the poor and the low-skilled, who long ago turned their backs on politics, feeling that it was “the higher-ups” who were responsible for their fate. There are also the former voters who have become deeply disenchanted with their former favourite party but do not have the heart to vote for another one. That explains why so many former SPD voters, in the wake of the Agenda Reforms (of 2003, under the SPD), have been boycotting the elections.

Educated non-voters

Contempt for Germany’s politics and its parties has clearly penetrated to the higher levels of society

In the meantime there has come along a third group that is giving a new dimension to abstention, above all in “quality”. A new type has joined the drop-outs: educated, often wealthy non-voters – abstainees from the better neighbourhoods. The new non-voters know no shame, and carry their abstainee status like an monstrance bearing the sacred host. Just 7 per cent of those non-voters surveyed by INSA on behalf of Bild Zeitung have had to defend themselves against criticism from friends and family. Contempt for Germany’s politics and its parties has clearly penetrated to the higher levels of society.

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert speaks of a new type of “haughty non-voter”. The haughty ones do not live on Hartz IV benefits, nor do they complain that politicians and society deny them the chance to climb higher. On the contrary, they come in the guise of philosophers, spend most of their time in television studios and speak most sincerely, frankly, candidly.

Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently declared in all seriousness that he doesn’t know what day the election will be held on. “So far, what has been politically reasonable has been to choose the lesser of two evils. What do I do, then, if I don't know which is the lesser evil?” asks Sloterdijk, justifying his decision to stay away from the polling booth. His colleague Richard David Precht meanwhile declared that this election is “probably the most inconsequential in the history of the Federal Republic.” What comes across in these gestures of intellectual reflection translates into nothing more than: “Everyone’s dumb. Except for me.”

‘Collective loss of capability for Utopia’

The arrogant take themselves for better democrats – better than the parties in any case and their oh-so-mediocre personnel. They follow the issues of the campaign with a raised eyebrow. They want to talk about the big questions and complain about a lack of visions for the future. Precht speaks of the “kidstuff campaign” and complains about the “unphilosophical policies” and the “collective loss of capability for Utopia”. He laments the ever closer huddling of parties around the same centralist issues; there is, he says, merely one single “mega party”. This party stands “for the environment and Europe, for education, family, kids, health.”

True, the present makes do without the great ideological skirmishing of the past, which is also reflected in the parties’ programmes. It would even be desirable if the opposition could come up with strong opposing notions on key issues such as the future of Europe or the energy turnaround. Of course, it would be great if Chancellor Angela Merkel did not so obtrusively go out of her way to avoid conflicts over the issues. Democracy thrives on the battle of ideas, and works best the more wide-ranging are the ideas and the sharper their defenders.

But is the current absence of polarisation justified by the fact that more and more citizens are taking on the role of consumers? In a way, to be “offered” something from the politicians, rather than to inform themselves about what the politicians are offering? It may be that Angela Merkel wants to put the citizens into a deep sleep. But must you therefore allow yourself to be put to sleep?