Germany: dare more democracy

Guest article by Burkhard Gnärig

The CIVICUS Monitor, which assesses the space for civil society, lists Germany as one of the few countries around the world where the space for citizens’ participation is ‘open’.  We seem to be fine. So, what’s the point in reimagining democracy in Germany?

While German citizens enjoy extensive democratic freedoms today, there are a growing number of worrying signs that this may change. Like the vast majority of countries worldwide, Germany is experiencing growing nationalism, decreasing tolerance, populist policies and authoritarian government. Here are a few examples that recently occurred within the space of a few days:

The conservative state government of Bavaria, one of Germany’s federal states that faces an election in 2018, tightened its Police Law to enable officers to tap phones, open post and make ‘preventative arrests’ on the grounds of ‘impending danger’. This means that the police no longer need hard facts to act: they can imprison citizens on mere suspicion. No wonder that many people see this as a step towards a police state. However, against the backdrop of growing right-wing populism the state government hopes to attract a significant number of voters with such policies.

With a similar agenda, the Bavarian state government decreed that from now on, the Christian symbol of the cross needs to be placed at the entrance of every government office. Even some representatives of the Catholic Church voiced their concern at this move. Showing the cross in public buildings obviously aims to convey to all those who aren’t Christians that their religions or ethics are second class. Such policies aim at polarising society and mobilising one group of citizens against another.

Recently the head of the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party said that Germans shouldn’t make such a fuss about Hitler and the Nazis who were only ‘bird droppings’ in over 1,000 years of successful German history. Belittling the 50 million deaths caused by German fascism is a frequently used strategy to pave the way for a resurgence of right-wing nationalism.

Like so many other countries, Germany increasingly suffers from politicians who polarise society by sowing envy and hatred and by mobilising citizens against each other. While Germany as a whole is still a relatively stable democracy, some regions have become breeding grounds for fascist thinking. Especially in the federal states in the east, many citizens support the AfD. In the last federal election the party received over 22 per cent of the votes in the east, while in the west, its support stood at around 11 per cent.

The debate about the causes of the resurgence of right-wing thinking in Germany usually focuses on two aspects: the recent history of East Germany and the arrival of over a million refugees in 2015 to 2016.

East Germany comprises the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, which, contrary to its name, was a one-party state that did not grant its citizens any democratic choice. When the Berlin Wall came down three generations of East Germans had only experienced totalitarianism: first fascism, then Stalinism and finally the ‘real existierenden Sozialismus’ (actually existing socialism) that the East German government claimed to practise. With German unity the east’s industrial infrastructure collapsed, unable to compete in a capitalist environment. Many young and educated citizens migrated to West Germany where they found better paid work. As the old and the less ambitious and competitive stayed back, the east of Germany found it difficult to catch up with the west. Until today, in the east unemployment is higher and salaries are lower than in the west. Both the lack of democratic education and experiences and the grievances of the east against the west are often blamed for the rise of neo-fascism in east Germany.

When Angela Merkel’s government decided to open the German borders to over a million refugees from Syria and other countries she was probably driven by compassion - but certainly not by compassion only: Germany is an ageing society where not enough children are being born to secure the future workforce and pay for the retirement benefits for a fast-growing number of old people. Germany needs immigrants to maintain the high living standard of its people. This living standard could only be achieved with the contribution of millions of foreign workers, mainly from Turkey, who migrated to Germany. Today nearly a quarter of all people living in Germany have foreign roots. Since the 1950s, ‘traditional’ Germans have been used to an ongoing influx of ‘guest workers’, most of whom chose to stay. However, the arrival of over a million people within a period of a few months scared many Germans, especially those with less education and in a more precarious work environment. They fear the competition of the immigrants both on the job market and for social security benefits.

The arrival of the refugees added to the geographic east-west division a social division between the university students and middle-class citizens who received the refugees with open arms and the less prosperous and privileged Germans who wanted to keep the foreigners out. The arrival of large numbers of refugees had a strong mobilising effect on German civil society: people on both sides got together to take action. On one side a large number of spontaneous initiatives emerged, receiving refugees at railway stations, welcoming them to Germany and supplying them with food and drinks; and providing support ranging from language courses to help with finding work and from childcare to legal advice. On the other side citizens organised protests against the government’s open border policy and joined right-wing organisations in large numbers.

As the example of the Syrian refugees shows, democracy and civic space in Germany are very much dependent on events in many other countries, including wars and other humanitarian disasters that make people refugees and migrants, but also the success of populist campaigns, notably in the UK for Brexit and in the USA for Trump, which serve as blueprints for ambitious and ruthless politicians here. In times of growing uncertainty, inequality and fear, an increasing number of people in Germany and other rich countries want comfort for themselves rather than solidarity with others; they want simple answers rather than the complexity of real life, and demagogues and wannabe dictators thrive.

What do we have to expect in the future? If we extrapolate current trends we have to expect by 2050:

  • 25 per cent more people living on this planet;
  • 25 per cent less arable land;
  • 7.8 billion people living unsustainable middle-class lives;
  • climate change reaching +2º C, causing large numbers of climate refugees.

In short, we have to expect many more people competing for fast-shrinking resources. While development policies in the 20th century aimed at distributing abundance more fairly, development policies of the 21st century will have to aim for a fairer distribution of scarcity. In such a world democracy will be under permanent strain from both ends of the social spectrum: from the rich trying to prevent equality and fairness globally as this will threaten their privileged access to ever scarcer resources, and from the poor who don’t see democracy delivering their fair share. As the global crisis takes shape it will become obvious that our economic ‘catch as catch can’ system, which is based on the law of the strongest, is in direct opposition to human rights-based democracy that protects the rights of the weakest.

Against the background of unparalleled inequality we already observe today, and of dramatic resource scarcity, we have to expect that it is unlikely we will be able to maintain the two opposing principles of democracy and capitalism in parallel. Democracy will only prevail if we establish a global economic system that secures equal access to and sustainable use of scarce global resources.

As a post-war German I still cannot attend a football game without feeling cold shivers up my spine when I hear the crowd roar. Then I remember the film I saw at school so many decades ago. Adolf Hitler shouted at a crowd of one hundred thousand: ‘do you want total war?’ and the crowd enthusiastically shouted back: ‘yes!’ My father later told me that he was among that crowd and that at that very moment he didn’t feel anything wrong with shouting ‘yes!’ As this example shows, mass approval is not always an indicator of being right. As an activist fighting for democracy, human rights and citizens’ participation, I am deeply worried about the growing number of examples of people who use their democratic rights to take away the rights of others. Even in rich and politically moderate Europe people nowadays elect governments that divide rather than unify and that promise to promote the rights of their own electorate above the rights of all others. In such a situation it is necessary to ask: is democracy such a good thing after all? Is democracy suitable to secure a decent future for all humanity?

My answer is a resounding ‘yes’. True democracy means that every person has the same rights and obligations, and in a globalised world that means globally. We need democracy for all and democracy everywhere. In Germany, as elsewhere, I observe dangerous tendencies to curtail citizens’ rights in order to accommodate totalitarian positions. Yes, democracy is very much about achieving compromises, but compromising on the rules of democracy itself weakens the principle of a fair balance of interests and thus weakens democracy. At a time of rapid and hard to control disruption and transformation, protecting and promoting all people’s democratic rights is essential to securing peaceful change.

It is not sufficient to guarantee civic participation in only a few prosperous countries; we need democracy and broad citizens’ participation everywhere. The few ‘open’ countries on the CIVICUS Monitor cannot possibly accommodate all the oppressed, persecuted and exploited people who suffer under dictatorial and kleptocratic governments. However, as we tolerate mafia governments in so many countries and as we hesitate to address climate change and other global challenges effectively the likelihood of preserving a few islands of democracy, human rights and citizens’ participation is slim. The arrival of a million refugees in Germany at short notice has shown how vulnerable democracy is in such situations. If we don’t achieve democracy for all and - at least close to - everywhere, democracy in Germany or elsewhere will be difficult to uphold.

The way we practise democracy in Germany is no longer meeting the expectations of a growing number of citizens. Today, participation in elections is about 20 per cent lower than it has been at its peak and moderate parties experience shrinking numbers of members year by year. These trends can be observed in most other democratic countries. Obviously the reasons for this trend are complex and in Germany some of issues discussed above may contribute to democracy fatigue. However, from my perspective the most relevant factor in the decline of democracy is the traditionalist way in which we attempt to secure fair and egalitarian decision making.

Democracy as we know it was shaped in the 18th and 19th centuries. With a few exceptions, Switzerland being the most notable one, democracy means representative democracy: every three to five years people elect their representatives at town, provincial and national levels and thus authorise them to take political decisions on their behalf. Between elections, citizens have minimal opportunities to participate in political decision making. By shaping modern democracy in the form of representative democracy its authors met the requirements of their time. With the majority of people living in dispersed rural settlements and modern communication technology non-existent the most they could expect from the average citizen was to come to the nearest town every few years in order to cast his vote. Once the farmer had done this - his wife, like all other women, was not allowed to vote - he went back home and, for the next few years, left politics to the politicians.

Given the technological opportunities we have today, there is no need at all for citizens to leave politicians alone with taking important decisions. However, this is still the way democracy works. Isn’t it strange to find that the Eurovision Song Contest, selecting the most popular song annually, provides individual citizens with more influence on the decision than any of the past United Nations (UN) climate conferences has done? We are allowed to select a pop song and make its interpreter rich but we are excluded from decisions that strongly and sometimes dramatically affect our lives. We urgently need to re-invent democracy in such a way that all people have the chance to participate directly in taking important political decisions.

How could democracy of the 21st century look like? Together with a colleague I have developed a thought piece called COSMOPOLIS - Mobilising Citizens Globally to Save Humanity from the Brink of Self-Destruction. The text summarises its ideas as follows:

Cosmopolis describes a people-powered and people-driven model of decision-making and implementation that connects local contexts with global action. Based on a set of strategic objectives and ethical principles, citizens will come together in small locally based groups that are globally connected through a participatory decision-making process to devise collective global actions. Making use of already existing technology, Cosmopolis will build on and further develop successful models of citizen’s participation to create the framework for global cooperation in parallel to the currently existing global governance structures with the aim to influence them and - over time - replace them securing a truly global approach of problem-solving. Rather than proposing new but again static governance institutions, this model introduces flexible, adaptive, and quick procedures that can respond to the fast-changing challenges and opportunities of today’s and tomorrow’s world.

Today, democracy in Germany still functions comparatively well. However, as global challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity and cross-border migration will intensify, the conflict between capitalism based on the law of the strongest and democracy that secures the rights of the weakest will sharpen. If we want to preserve democracy in Germany and elsewhere we will need to devise a much fairer, sustainability focused economic system.

German democracy will not survive if it is surrounded by populist and authoritarian countries. In order to preserve German democracy we need to strengthen democracy in Europe and beyond.

We need to ensure that all people globally can participate in taking decisions that affect the future of humanity on this planet. We need to establish a global system of citizen-driven direct democracy at the local, national and global levels, a system that will start by influencing the existing approaches to governance and eventually replace outdated decision making systems.

In 1969 the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt said ‘wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen’ - we want to dare more democracy. This has been an unfulfilled promise to date. We urgently need to dare more democracy if we want to secure an equitable, fair and just future for all, in Germany and everywhere else.

About the author

From being a conscientious objector in cold war Germany to driving the creation of the Civic Charter, Burkhard Gnärig has been a civil society activist and manager for over four decades. Burkhard has been CEO of terre des hommes Germany, Greenpeace Germany and Save the Children International. In 2007 Burkhard founded the International Civil Society Centre and was its Executive Director until March 2018. Burkhard has been board chair or a board member of organisations in Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea and Switzerland. In 2015 Burkhard published ‘The Hedgehog and the Beetle’, a book on disruption and innovation in civil society. Today, Burkhard works for citizen participation and gender justice. He provides advice on transformational leadership, governance and management. The views expressed in this article are his personal opinions only, and do not reflect the views of the International Civil Society Centre.