Future of Democracy Debate

Why Dresden?

Foto: fritz zühlke / pixelio.de

The recent success of the PEGIDA movement spurs the debate on the current state of democracy in Germany. Even if the “movement” might cease to exist sooner or later, this does not mean that the underlying issues are going to vanish any time soon. Policy Fellow Dr. Sabrina Schulz in her latest contribution analyses these and concludes: Solidarity and a vibrant democracy are impossible if economic realities prevent people from identifying with the society they live in.

The anti-Islamist right wing PEGIDA (= Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) movement has been preoccupying the public debate in Germany over the past three months or so. PEGIDA rallies used to attract up to 20,000 protestors although figures are slowly declining. Their unsavoury leader, Lutz Bachmann, had to step down after an allegedly satiric “Hitler selfie” appeared and was spread on Facebook. There was growing disagreement amongst the leadership on how to position the “movement” between the right-wing populist and conservative pole that lead to a split of the movement. But this does not mean that the underlying issues are going to vanish any time soon.

The movement originated in Dresden, Saxony, with a population share of only just over 2% of non-Germans – few of them from a Muslim background. The inexistent “Islamist threat” has become the target for people’s resentment against the political class and an outlet for many of their vaguely defined fears. Dresden used to be the centre of the “Monday Demonstrations” that ultimately brought down the regime in the GDR in 1989. Many of PEGIDA’s supporters in Dresden are now saying that their hopes for an improvement of their personal and overall economic situation were betrayed. After 40 years of predictability and social security during the times of the GDR the reunification ushered in an era of individualism and the need to take decisions about the direction of one’s life. Not everyone was able to transition smoothly into the new era. Many lost out, especially those who lost their jobs and were unable to turn their destiny around. Lower middle class people in particular ended up in a state of disillusionment that only got fuelled by a self-satisfied and uninspired political class that was perceived as refusing to take their concerns seriously. The initiators of PEGIDA were able to capture this public sentiment.

It seems easy to project one’s dissatisfaction and bitterness on a scapegoat, in this case: Muslims, who you do not have to confront in your daily life and on whom you can project all kinds of assumptions. Populist leaders and movements can easily make use of these mechanisms when mobilising people. But mobilise for what purpose?

PEGIDA stands for everything that people are “against”. And the sad bottom line is that there is a frightening degree of racism in Saxony where the right wing, anti-EU AfD party is scoring high as well. PEGIDA is not a “German” movement. Nevertheless, it tells us something about the state of democracy in Germany.

The political establishment in Germany still seems to be at a complete loss when it comes to “taking on” or “engaging with” PEGIDA supporters. They might meet with PEGIDA supporters – but certainly politicians from all established political parties must refrain from doing so with its leadership. Yet at the same time they have no idea who PEGIDA supporters really are and what their demands are. Are they just “disillusioned” and “angry”, do they feel that established political parties are aloof and “not engaging with their issues”, or are they simply outright racist, nationalist and right-wing?

The truth lies probably somewhere in between, especially because the resentment of protesters extends to “the media”, “politicians” and “the public”. PEGIDA supporters do not tend to belong to a political party or any religious organisation – some of the typical indicators for social integration in Germany – they tend to be anti-intellectual, and they are deeply sceptical of the political system and the political class. Democracy is not seen to be delivering what they are asking for. Yet anti-immigrant discourse, a focus on eroding family values, or Germany’s currently severely contested relationship with Russia are real fears by real people – whether I like it or not. The post-68 victory of liberal values in Germany might meet my expectations of a country worth to be living in but it does not satisfy the needs of all of my fellow citizens.

Thus, ultimately, the problem goes much deeper. In a society – not only in Saxony – where people distrust public discourse, institutions and the political process itself democratic politics cannot come to fruition. And the liberal left-wing mainstream has little to offer in terms of a democratic renewal. Their ideas do not appeal to Pegida supporters, nor do they represent an answer to the origins of their frustrations. There is a visionary void across all political parties in Germany and most of the rest of Europe. The question now is not so much who is to blame but who is responsible for coming up with solution. It is clear that all of us are.

It does make a difference why citizens of a democratic country withdraw from the public sphere, i.e. whether they are angry or whether they can’t be bothered. Yet whatever their motivation, by rejecting the system without offering an alternative they are paving the way for populist leaders. And they are also allowing incumbent political leaders to continue their anaemic styles of running their countries.

Interestingly, a recent poll about German university students showed that political apathy goes across all societal groups: today’s students seem apolitical and anti-intellectual. Only 45% show a real interest in politics, 73% pursue the goal of “being able to afford nice things” as a reason for their studies at university, half of them are sceptical about immigration and believe that too much of it putting too much stress on Germany.

Thus, any attempts at democratic renewal have to take the realities of a broad range of societal groups into account. The most important and most pressing political task, however, will be to address the increasing gap between those who are “in” and those who feel that they are “out”. Solidarity and a vibrant democracy are impossible if economic realities prevent people from identifying with the society they live in.

Sabrina Schulz

published on

2 February 2015