Rising populism in Germany: What should mainstream parties do about it?

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
Rising populism in Germany: What should mainstream parties do about it?
Political placards lining the street before last year's Federal elections in Germany. Photo: DPA

Populist attitudes in Germany are increasing, with more than three in 10 voters sympathizing with anti-mainstream parties, according to a new study.


The latest ‘populism barometer’, carried out by think tank the Bertelsmann Foundation with the Berlin Social Science Research Centre, found 30.4 percent of eligible voters in Germany embraced left or right populist attitudes, about 4 percent more than the previous year.

At the same time, the number of sampled voters who identify as politically centrist has decreased by four percentage points, to 32.8 percent.

The opinion research institute Infratest dimap interviewed more than 3,400 voters on behalf of the foundation in early summer. They were asked to indicate which party they voted for in the 2017 Federal elections and where they located themselves on a left-right scale.

The survey measured populist attitudes by asking people about factors including anti-establishment attitudes, anti-pluralism and the desire for more “sovereignty of the people”.

The report states that populist attitudes are “widespread” and are “increasing in scope and intensity especially in the political centre”.

Robert Vehrkamp and Wolfgang Merkel, the authors of the study, also analyzed what establishment parties could do to win back voters and looked at social housing, Europe and an “anti-populism strategy”.

What is populism?

In political science, populism is the idea that society is separated into two groups who are at odds with one another - 'the pure people' and 'the corrupt elite'. Although populist parties can be anywhere on the political spectrum, in recent years successful populists have been on the right.

Think Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and, in Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

Report authors Robert Vehrkamp, political scientist at the Bertelsmann Foundation, and Wolfgang Merkel, political scientist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin. Photo: DPA

Who’s benefiting from Germany’s rise in populism?

The AfD is profiting from this trend the most, says the report, evident in recent polls that placed the party as second strongest in the country.

But the Left Party (die Linke) also scores points with populists and has managed to swipe votes from the Social Democrats (SPD). A new grassroots movement, Aufstehen (Stand Up) by The Left's Sahra Wagenknecht and her husband, the former finance minister Oskar LaFontaine, is a grassroots movement which also aims to harness support away from mainstream parties.

The rise in populist attitudes among all voters can partly be explained by the increasingly populist political centre. An interesting find by the report is that around one in eight voters with populist sympathies still identifies as part of the centre.

"Right-wing voters support the AfD because the party is right wing. But voters in the middle will also vote AfD because the party speaks to their populist sympathies," the study explains.

The report authors say the AfD uses its populism as an “active mobilization strategy” as they aim to appeal to as many people as possible. The party often speaks out against the "elite", including media and mainstream politicians. 

After the AfD won more than 12 percent in Germany's elections last year, co-leader Alexander Gauland said he would "hunt" politicians, including Angela Merkel..." and we will reclaim our country and our people," he added, emphasizing the 'us' and 'them' stance that is a characteristic of populism.

“The AfD voters from the middle choose populism, but get a party that is more ideologically right-wing than they would have liked,” states the Bertelsmann report.

However, the "glass ceiling" of voter potential for the AfD is relatively low according to the data. In the survey, 71 percent of voters stated that they "would never vote for the AfD".

Alexander Gauland of the AfD. Photo: DPA

Meanwhile, a total of 51 percent of respondents say they wouldn't vote for the Left Party. For the Greens it’s 31 percent, and for both the FDP and the CDU/CSU, the figure is 29 percent.

In recent weeks, the SPD has suffered in popularity polls - and landed behind the AfD nationwide . However, the potential of the Social Democrats remains high, at least in theory. Only 23 percent of eligible voters would not vote for SPD under any circumstances.

The report notes that more than two-thirds of all German voters are not - or not yet - explicitly populist.

What does the trend mean for other parties?

For traditional parties, the populism trend is increasingly becoming a problem because they are losing votes to anti-mainstream parties.

However, there is a success story. The Greens offer the least populist positions but this is not a problem, since their supporters can be attributed almost exclusively to the third of the population that is unresponsive to populist attitudes, DPA reports. 

The Greens popularity has been shown in the run up to the Bavarian state elections later this month. According to polls, the Greens are on course to win 18 percent of the vote in Bavaria, more than doubling their result from five years ago.

It would make the left-wing environmental party the second largest in the region, after the CSU which has dominated the region for decades. 

How can mainstream parties win back voters?

The study shows that politicians who demand significantly higher investment in social housing have the potential to win back points from the electorate. Doing this would raise a party's approval rating by 15 percentage points among both the populist and non-populist camps.

Demanding stronger cooperation in Europe would also increase approval ratings, the study shows. 

Those who oppose more referendums and support the admission of "a great many new refugees", on the other hand, risk their popularity with the electorate, according to the survey.

What about 'anti-populism'?

The reports states that “fighting populism with populism” could increase the problems rather than solving them.

Sahra Wagenknecht of The Left Party. Photo: DPA

The authors say “swelling populism” is “never successful without a reason”. “It has causes,” they add.

They say a foundation of “anti-populism” must recognize and fight against the causes of populism by examining social division and conflict.

“Populists clearly have no answers or solutions of their own. But they benefit from this situation as long as the established parties have no answers either,” write the authors.

They prescribe that successful “anti-populism” has to find new solutions, build bridges and reach out to communities to overcome social and cultural divisions.

"’Anti-populism’ must appeal to people, reach them in their own language, and recognize them in their own lives, and reduce the distance that has arisen between established politics and their citizens,” write the authors.

However, the report adds that, although “anti-populism” doesn’t have to become populist itself. Rather, it must be popular or  “otherwise it will not win majorities in democracy, which it needs to in order to achieve change”.


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Anonymous 2018/10/02 09:15
According to what I read in the Local, anyone who is not a socialist is a ‘right wing fascist’. Newsflash. Conserve means to resist change. Conservatives resist change. They are centrist, neither radical (from radius) left nor right. Populist is an overused term that means ‘everyone else’. I.e.,ordinary, law-abiding citizens who are proud of their culture, their nation state and want peace and prosperity. I.e. normal, Germans. Further newsflash. The right wing (1789, France) was the side of the Establishment, the Monarchy, Nobility, Aristocracy and the Church. The NSDAP were a grassroots, socialist workers’ party - Left wing. Nazis and Fascists, Bolsheviks, Marxists and Communists were all Left wing movements. Please read some history.
Anonymous 2018/10/01 19:03
Maybe the mainstream parties should start representing Germans instead of Russians and "refugees."

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