2. How to constrain populism in Germany

in Conflicts 2017 · Crisis 2017 · Economics 2017 · EN · Euroskepticism · Nation 2017 · Person 2017 · Politics 2017 · Skepticism 2017 54 views / 3 comments
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by Teresa Coratella

Italy was not heavily affected by the “first wave” of populism to hit Europe in recent years: in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the mainstream Democratic Party (DP) won with almost 41% of the votes. However, the refugee crisis — which has hit Italy and Greece hardest of all — has clearly changed that.

Today the anti-immigration Northern League is supported by 13,5% of voters and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement polls at around 29% (though it should be noted that the latter rejects the ‘populist’ label).  The two parties campaigned (independently) to successfully oppose Matteo Renzi’s 2016 constitutional reform proposals, in what can be seen as the first major post-war victory for populism in Italy.

It is not surprising, then, that the current Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is alert to the populist challenge.

Minister of Interior Marco Minniti’s plan to stop the influx of migrants shows how the government has chosen to accommodate, rather than challenge, rising nativist sentiments.

According to recent polls, Minniti’s plan was widely welcomed by the Italian public, who consider national social stability a priority. Merkel could learn from this that she, too, will need to toughen immigration policy if she wants to keep the AfD at bay.

The Italian experience suggests, therefore, that the lesson for Merkel is that left-right ideologies are less important than the new moderate-populist divide. If she wants to neutralize the threat of extremists, she will need to find a way to work constructively with her new coalition partners, the Greens, and her former partners the SPD. The latter may be more difficult given that the social democrats have deliberately chosen to go leave government in order to reassert their opposition to her party.

However, the most important thing — as well as the most difficult challenge for both Italy and Germany — is to do so while understanding the deep causes of citizens’ discontent, and addressing them through concrete answers, especially on the inequality front.


by Daniel Stefanov

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov often emphasises his personal ties with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He even likes to play the role of being mentored by her. But apparently, when it comes to dealing with extreme populists, the mentor and the “protégé” do not have much in common.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance, along with all other parties in the Bundestag, have ruled out working with the AfD in any prospective coalition. Whereas, in 2009 when Borissov faced the extremist test for the first time in politics, he made a very different choice. Instead of seeking to isolate them, he decided to use their support for his minority government. Since then, the stability of every Bulgarian government has depended on the votes of the populist nationalist groups in parliament. Currently, a new alliance, incorporating all three nationalist parties, is an official government partner in the third cabinet of Borissov.

The domestication plan of Borissov would include several main points. First, europeanize the nationalists. The so-called patriots were given a clear choice – participate in a pro-European government, or stay in opposition. They went for the cabinet seats.

Secondly, they were given real jobs. The leader of VMRO, Karakachanov who in the past often questioned Bulgaria’s membership of NATO, received the post of a Defence minister. After he received first-hand impressions from both the Bulgarian army and NATO, he never questioned the Alliance again.

Thirdly, keep foreign policy out of their hands. The patriots are able to create some noise domestically. But it is Borissov who decides when to flirt with Brussels and Berlin, and when to side with the Visegrad.

It very improbable that Borissov’s mentor – Angela Merkel would go the same steps. But Bulgaria is a sign that the mainstream of politics is shifting in different directions in the different parts of Europe. That makes domestication one of the possible strategies to deal with extreme populists.


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  1. Populism, which the Bertelsmann Institute defines as being anti-establishment, anti-pluralistic, and pro national sovereignty, is definitely present among German voters, according to the institute’s three-part survey on populism in Germany between 2015 and 2017. The results showed (pdf in German) that 29.2% were deeply populist, 33.9% held some populist views and the rest couldn’t be described as populist at all.

  2. The survey asked how people felt about hot-button topics like social inequality, the EU, democracy, and immigrants. It found that Germany’s right-wing populists are often “disappointed democrats,” not radical enemies of democracy—and that their big obsession is refugees.

  3. “I would go as far as to say, that if we hadn’t had this refugee crisis in Germany, then we wouldn’t be talking at all in Germany about populism and the AFD at this moment,” Vehrkamp says.

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