Regularly, we want to include the experience of external minds on our blog and learn from their insights. In the course of our federal election newsletter, we therefore regularly talk to decision-makers at all political levels. Before these interviews appear here on our blog, you can read them in advance in the newsletter.
In today’s interview with Valerie Sternberg-Irvani, top candidate of Volt Berlin and President of Volt Europe, we focus on the challenges of a federal election for a young party like Volt and what possibilities there are for them to still run a successful campaign.
First of all: When and why did you join Volt and what was the main reason for you to run as a top candidate for Volt Berlin in the federal elections?
I came to Volt in 2017 as a result of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It was then that I understood how privileged it is that we live in a liberal democracy and a united Europe and that it doesn’t have to stay that way. That’s when I decided to get involved.
At the end of last year, I also realised that there is a mood of change in Germany. Many people are searching and often don’t know who to vote for in the federal elections in September. So far, there has been no party that has presented a progressive and, above all, positive plan for the future. There has also been no party that aims at tackling current challenges like climate change and digitisation in a European way. That was the point at which I decided to run as candidate. Because we as Volt have incredible potential both as a European party, but also as a party of the progressive centre, because this centre is currently empty.
What possibilities are there to possibly integrate this European claim as a member of a national parliament?
This European integration on national level is already happening with Volt, because in the Netherlands, for example, MPs have been elected to the so-called Tweede Kammer (note: roughly comparable to the German Bundestag). These national MPs exchange views with our Member of the European Parliament Damian Boeselager and other elected representatives of parliaments at local and regional level in a monthly call.
This broadens one’s horizons and creates the opportunity to think outside the box and, as a German MP, to call the Dutch Volt MP, for example, and ask how they tackle a challenge. You can learn from this and incorporate it into your own strategy. That can only be fruitful.
In Germany, the conditions for running in elections are very precisely regulated through the collection of signatures. Is there something Germany could learn from other European countries on this matter?
In a European comparison, it can be said that the requirements for young parties in Germany are fair. Even if they are not easy for small parties. The only thing that can be objected to, as in many bureaucratic procedures, is that the process is not digitalised.
For young and small parties, the Netherlands in particular is a model of how to run a stable democracy with low hurdles. Because there, the many voices are seen as enrichment. There, something new is generally seen as something positive, whereas in Germany, something new is initially met with scepticism.
In Germany, the 5% hurdle is often a major obstacle for young, less established parties. What does Volt do to counter sceptical voters who are afraid that their vote might get “lost” if they vote for Volt?
We are pursuing two paths: First, of course, we want to jump the 5% hurdle. We have already achieved the supposedly impossible in the European elections. After only one year of our foundation, we won a seat in the European Parliament. And we want to go into these federal elections with the same courage and self-confidence.
Moreover, the vote will not be lost, because every vote for us, even if we do not get into the Bundestag, is at the same time a statement. This also means that every vote for us will be counter-financed in the future and thus means one euro more for a European, progressive party and voice in German politics.
In parallel, we will concentrate on promising direct constituencies, which we have defined very precisely through data analysis. I for example will run for Berlin Mitte. (Note: direct mandates won are not dependent on the 5% hurdle).
In your function as top candidate: What are your biggest learnings that are perhaps not so visible to outsiders?
Many things are repeating itself in the various election campaigns we have done in the past years and are therefore not too surprising. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise the importance of fundraising. We are much less funded than other parties because we do not have party funding on the same scale and we do not have loyal donors yet. Thus, we are much more dependent on fundraising campaigns.
Another learning is the need to build a network – especially on issues that are close to one’s heart. It’s not just about getting votes, but also about testing yourself. This means, for example, talking to student representatives or teachers if you care about education to give yourself a reality check.
Volt Germany is now running in a federal election for the first time. How does Volt know what matters in a federal election campaign? Do you learn your lessons from other parties that are experienced in this?
We try to think as logically as possible. Of course, we also look at what other parties are doing, so that we do not reinvent the wheel, but rather use it for ourselves. At the same time, we don’t just want to copy and blindly reproduce the same thing.
For the European elections, for example, we divided our budget 50% for the offline campaign and 50% for the online campaign. Other parties had hardly done this before and therefore online campaigning was too often left to the AfD. But since the younger generation between 18 and 35/40 is strongly focused on online, you have to play this field as well.
Nevertheless, if you don’t take place offline, you won’t be taken seriously online either, or you won’t be trusted. If the voter does not know the face of a party and has never seen “Volter” or the party’s posters in the street, he or she will not have any connection to the party.
This was also an added value for us in the European elections, which we now want to reproduce: By having an insane number of motivated volunteers walking the streets months before the election, we create accessibility and we were therefore able to compete, as a newcomer, against the other parties.
Many parties report that, in addition to the revival of the large advertising posters in the pandemic, digital election campaigning in particular is on the rise. As you said, this was already the case for Volt in 2019 as well. What advantages and disadvantages do you see in this?
The disadvantage for Volt is that digital campaigning, especially including microtargeting, is very expensive, and that we only have limited funding.
The advantage for us, however, is that our volunteers are very active online and achieve a large organic reach on their own through a lot of engagement in comments and likes. So for us in particular, online campaigning has to be seen from two perspectives.
Finally, if you were elected in September and could choose which three changes to implement right now, what would they be?
On the one hand, I would introduce a ministry for European best practice sharing. Then a cross-cutting ministry for citizen empowerment and thirdly, I would demand that Germany becomes a so-called Wellbeing Economy Government. This means that the government commits itself not only to growth in its society, but above all to defining other variables, such as sustainability or the wellbeing of a society, as target factors.