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Germany: Trust in democracy still strong, survey finds

  • April 29, 2023

Almost half of the people living in Germany are fairly or very satisfied with the state of democracy, according to a new report, published this week. Just over half are less satisfied or not at all satisfied.

So is the glass half full or half empty? This is also the question explored in the report, entitled “Trust in Democracy in Times of Crisis,” and produced by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), the Social Democrat-affiliated think tank.

FES Executive Director Sabine Fandrych emphasizes what she sees as the positives: Democracy is performing better and more robustly “than one might expect, given the multiple crises.” Compared to the first survey carried out in 2019, there has even been a “very slight increase” in trust. Back then, the figure was 46.6%; now it has risen to 48.7%.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the majority, just over 50%, remains dissatisfied with democratic institutions, and the survey shows that skepticism about democracy is greatest among people of a low level of education and low income. In addition, the significantly lower level of approval in eastern Germany, is still striking compared to western Germany.

‘Gateway for populists’

That’s why Fandrych is concerned about social cohesion. In view of the complex crises and widespread uncertainty among the population, she says, the longing for simple answers is growing. “This is, of course, a gateway for populists,” she told DW.

So the overall findings are mixed. Nevertheless, the researchers, led by political scientist Frank Decker, also emphasize the positive aspects: “If we compare this with other European countries, we are doing quite well in Germany.”

Decker, of Bonn University, points to the polling results of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Although they have recently risen again across Germany to an average of 15%, they are not in the 30% to 40% range, which similar parties can boast in other European countries.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), for example, is the strongest party in the polls in that country. “People there are much more worried about the survival of democracy,” says Decker, before pointing out that far-right National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen won 40% of the vote in the presidential election in France. “And in Italy, a right-wing government has been formed, led by a post-fascist.”

Against this backdrop, Germany looks relatively objectively stable, notwithstanding people’s subjective feelings. In any case, Decker says the study does not show a deep social divide like in the US.

‘Radicalization of the margins’

But there is growing support for conspiracy narratives, such as denial of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, the racist narrative of a great population “replacement” through immigration, or the West’s culpability for the war in Ukraine by allegedly “provoking” Russia and Vladimir Putin. For such narratives, he said, there was an approval rating of between 18% and 36% in Germany.

Nor is Decker surprised by the differences between eastern and western Germany, which are sometimes quite large, even more than 30 years after the reunification in 1990. Attitudes in eastern German states are often comparable to those in other post-communist societies in Central and Eastern Europe.

In those regions, too, one can see clear differences from the West, says the democracy researcher, referring to the success of right-wing populist governing parties such as Fidesz in Hungary or the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland. “There are very strong similarities there politically and culturally with the East Germans,” Decker says.

Citizens’ assemblies: The way forward?

So how could satisfaction with democracy be improved? Fandrych believes that we need less aggravated discourse, especially on social media, and more political education.

Decker believes the greater involvement of so-called citizens’ assemblies might also help, both when it comes to democracy as a whole, but also in specific policy areas such as the environment and transport. He believes this would result in a greater “diversity of perspectives.” But he would not replace representative institutions with such assemblies.

Grassroots committees could support and complement public opinion, Decker argues, “but the binding decisions should ultimately be reserved for parliament and government.” This, however, is a minority opinion: In the study he led, only one-third of respondents favored this form of government.

Still, almost 47% would be in favor of more direct democracy in the form of referendums on all important political and social issues. Meanwhile, around 19% would like to see a kind of “expertocracy,” in which experts from science, business and other fields would play a decisive role in guiding Germany’s destiny.

This article was originally written in German.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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