Gütersloh, July 25, 2017. People with fundamentally anti-establishment and anti-pluralist attitudes are not in the majority in Germany. Although almost 30 percent of the country's voters hold populist views, most voters reject populist positions (36.9 percent) or endorse them only to a limited extent (33.9 percent). One notable finding is that Germany’s populists tend to be moderate and do not endorse radical ideas. They do not fundamentally reject democratic institutions or those of the EU, but merely criticize their functioning. "The political climate in the run-up to the federal election is anything but 'a populist moment'," says Aart De Geus, CEO and Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. This becomes even more obvious with regards to the rejection of radical populist priorities by the eligble voters: "For established political parties, catering to extremist populist opinions in their election campaigns is not worthwhile," adds Robert Vehrkamp, democracy expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, who authored the study together with Christopher Wratil (University of Cologne).
More than 1,600 eligible voters were surveyed for the study in three representative surveys carried out between 2015 and 2017, making the findings representative of the German electorate.
Although voters with populist attitudes can be found across the political spectrum in Germany, a social gap exists within the country: The less formal education and less income voters have, the greater the chances they will hold populist views. For example, such views are most likely to be found among people who have not completed their secondary education or have graduated from one of the country's lower-level secondary schools and who have an average monthly income of less than €1,500. Given their social circumstances, non-voters are therefore more prone (36.4 percent) to have populist attitudes than voters (26.3 percent).
The more radical the position, the less support among the electorate
At the same time, populist attitudes in Germany tend to be moderate. For example, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of voters with populist viewpoints support Germany's membership in the EU, and 85 percent support democracy as a political system. Yet more than three-fourths (79 percent) say that European integration has gone too far and a slight majority (52 percent) say they "mostly disagree" or "strongly disagree" when asked if they are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in Germany. "Populists in Germany are often disappointed democrats, but they are not radical enemies of democracy. Criticism of the political establishment is much weaker in Germany than in the US or France," says Vehrkamp.
Moreover, in terms of mobilizing the electorate, the study's findings show that the more pointed and anti-establishment political messages are, the less support they receive from voters. According to the study’s authors, political parties therefore do themselves a disservice by catering to radical populist positions when addressing the issues of "Europe" and "globalization and free trade." Conversely, pro-establishment positions tend to increase the level of support. Extremist calls to "overthrow the elites" even have a negative impact on a party’s electoral chances (minus 12 percentage points). On the other hand, candidates do better with all eligible voters by taking a pro-European stance (plus 19 percentage points)
Refugee policy is the main driver of right-wing populism in Germany
The issue that currently most energizes populists in Germany is the country's refugee policy. "In terms of mobilization, the typically highly populist Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) voters focus on one issue more than supporters of any other party," says Vehrkamp. Calls to deport "a large number of refugees" result in a significant increase in support from AfD voters (plus 51 percentage points). Anti-refugee positions, however, do not increase support from adherents of other parties, who instead favor a more moderate and controlled approach to admitting refugees into the country.
The study also examined the correlation between populist attitudes and party preferences. The political party with the most non-populist supporters is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is endorsed by up to 60 percent of non-populist voters and less than 20 percent of populist voters. According to the study, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is supported in roughly equal measure by both camps. In contrast, the study's findings show that the AfD is clearly a right-wing populist party. Up to 60 percent of voters who hold decidedly right-wing populist opinions support the AfD, the party's highest level of support.