Interview Populism Democracy

Taking a stand against Populism – How can we strengthen our democracy?

Interview with Thomas Oppermann

In our interview with Thomas Oppermann, the Chairman of the SPD Parliamentary Group talks about the cause of and ways to deal with populism. He calls for the development of a debate culture in Germany and for a state which looks after the interests of its citizens. This involves looking at social inequalities and insecurity, the crisis of democracy, boundaries and exclusion, and at positive developments.

Throughout Europe populist parties are on the rise. There are often many differences between them. Is it accurate to use the term ‚the Populists’?

It is important to differentiate. Right-wing populists are particularly successful in well-off Northern Europe. Left-wing populist movements and parties play a larger role in the economically weaker South. But there are of course similarities. What unites populists is their expression of unease towards democracy and their general suspicion of a supposedly corrupt elite. Populists claim to be the true representatives – whatever form this may take – of the will of the people.

What are the roots of these movements?

Firstly, we live in a time in which a lot has rapidly changed. Our societies have become more heterogeneous and individualistic, old ties and loyalties are disappearing. This weakens existing state and societal institutions. At the same time worries about the future in a globalised and digital world are growing. Those who feel unfairly treated and insecure are on the whole more susceptible to populism. On top of this, the state is losing its ability to lead and is no longer at the helm in many areas. All these developments have been compounded over the course of the past two crises – the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. The consequence is a crisis of the legitimacy of democracy.

Germany has until now to a large extent been spared from right-wing populist movements – and then the AfD arrived. Will they be successful in the long-term?

No one knows if the AfD is a short-lived or permanent phenomenon. It is still unclear if they will even make it into parliament. The course chosen by their frontrunner, Alexander Gauland, is highly risky: he is trying to integrate the nationalist movement to the right of the political spectrum into the AfD. I don’t believe that a ‘Nazi Party’ will establish itself in Germany in the long-term.

How should a democratic party respond to the AfD?

There is no simple solution, we need a many-layered response. It is important that we have a more effective state which is able to respond to the real concerns and problems of its citizens. Populist parties exploit deficiencies and problems and use them to their advantage. If these problems are solved, we will pull the rug from under their feet. For example, the AfD had almost disappeared in 2015 as the euro crisis waned. Only when the refugee crisis began did they experience a comeback – the once anti-euro party then became the anti-refugee party. Our tasks for 2017: we need to organise immigration, create more social security and strengthen our democracy by encouraging political participation and political education. On top of this, we need to reopen arguments surrounding key topics.

More arguments? Germans are said to be in need of greater harmony at the moment.

Democracy can only function when opposition is expressed openly and controversial standpoints are articulated. In parliament, this type of debate was limited during the refugee crisis as well as during the euro crisis. Yet reservations and fears need to be aired. If mainstream politics does not provide an outlet for these issues, they will rear their head elsewhere.

How should one deal with populists when they have a seat in parliament?

We need a wide alliance against populists. Richard von Weizsäcker once said: ‘the Weimar Republic did not fail because of the presence of too many Nazis too early-on, but rather due to the absence of too many Democrats for too long.’ All citizens are called upon to fight populism. The good news is that the rise of the AfD has led to a politicisation of our society in Germany. The Pulse of Europe saw the birth of a pro-European movement. Over the course of the past few months 20,000 predominantly young people have joined the SPD. That shows that our democracy is firmly established and stable.

Thomas Oppermann is President of the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag.