Civil Society as an Obstacle to Populism: Germany studies

Angelina A. Malashenkova, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


This article studies the relationship between the civil society development level and right-wing populist parties’ chances to come to power. The topicality of the thesis is based upon the growing popularity of the right-wing radical parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press revealed the word ‘populism’ as the 2017 Word of the Year. The fact is proved by the latest election results in several European countries. For the purpose of this study, attention is focused on potential reasons of the phenomenon that becomes common within recent years. More specifically, the study will cover the dependence between the development status of civil society and the success of right-wing populist parties. Nowadays European countries face plenty of issues such as immigration, refugee’s crisis, developing Euroscepticism, which could have caused the increase of voters for right-wing populist parties. Germany being one of the most developed countries also has to respond to all those challenges. The objective of the article is to formulate a theory based on the results of German case study.

Key words: civil society index, right-wing populist parties, populism, immigrant crisis, Alternative for Germany, robust civil society.   

Main body

Radical right-wing parties become rather popular according to the latest elections results in the Western European countries. However, populism as a phenomenon arises earlier. The authors across the globe pay attention to populism studies since 1980’s. Today people just observe an increase in number of parties pursuing such policy.  The rise of number of populist parties in European region is a consecutive reaction to various challenges. Since 2014, Europe faces an immigration and refugee’s crises. The latest news from Great Britain indicates a rise in Euroscepticism. Eurosceptic right-wing populists focus on nationalism and immigrant policy and attract a great number of voters.

Though the enhanced impact of populism on modern politics, right-wing populist parties and their leaders still not have enough resources to get the power by obtaining the majority at the Parliament elections. Many factors affect people’s choice. Among them, it is necessary to mention social and economic development, general satisfaction level by people’s living standards and state of civil society.

This study does not aim to expose changes in voting behaviour but has the objective to find the relation between the state of civil society and populist parties’ success. Modern political science considers populism to be a global phenomenon. However, even today there is a need to expose the roots of populism laying in different regions and countries. The article will especially focus on Germany studies where the most significant features affecting the rise of populism are represented. The rhetoric is also based on the high state of civil society in the country. Germany has a strong tradition in terms of ensuring civil society stability[1].

Many studies since XX century focus on populism phenomenon. Today the topic is still important for the authors. A Dutch political scientist Cas Muddle studies populism and extremism in Europe and the USA. In his great comparative study, “Populist Right Radical Parties in Europe” Muddle defines the phenomenon itself, explores the main features of such parties and studies the voters’ attitudes (Muddle, 2007). A big study by R. Inglehart and P. Norris focuses on the rise of authoritarian populism in many countries and pay special attention to Trump’s policy and Brexit. According to the authors these examples prove the rise of populism in the world (Inglehart, Norris, 2016). Populism undermines the legitimacy of democracy as the study runs. Political scientists today accept that populism cannot be explored as a new phenomenon. However, it is obvious that it takes different turns over recent years. Marianne Kneur in her article “The tandem of populism and Euroscepticism: a comparative perspective in the light of the European crises”, studies the mélange of Populist and Eurosceptic parties affected by multiple crises in Europe (Marianne Kneur, 2019). Political science also focuses on the concept of the term ‘populism’. One of the concepts is to define populism as an ideology (Muddle, 2004; Paris Aslandis, 2016).

Studies on civil society have a great history. Political theorists such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, since antiquity develop this concept. However, it is important to understand that the essence of the phenomenon evaluated as the political thought always adapts to different historical periods and changes in human consciousness. The greatest theorists contributed to the development of the civil society concept. Among them, it is necessary to mention Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, George Hegel and Karl Marx. Everyone has his own vision of what society is and how do people can pursue their rights. According to Oxford Dictionary, civil society is a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity[2]. The main point is that civil society today is a special concept of relationship between people and government based on mutual trust, openness and collective activity.

In Germany, the state of civil society is one of the highest, according to the results of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum[3]. It is also important that the impact of civil society and civil society organizations on the whole society and intragovernmental processes is assessed to be high enough by CIVICUS report[4]. The authors find different reasons for such phenomenon. For example, Russian political scientist Dmitry Nechayev in his article “FRG: from a "Parties State" to a "Public Associations State"?” suggests that social challenges and crises in 90’s provoked people’s political activity and shaped their social behaviour (Nechayev, 2002).

However, not many studies explore relations between civil society and populism. There is an opinion that it is populism which affects state of civil society today (Decker, 2018). My article will study the opposite connection between these two phenomena. Earlier in 2019 Marin Lessebski Assya Kavrakova, Emily Long, Huw Longton and LorèneWeber presented the results of a great study prepared for The European Economic and Social Committee.[5] The study reveals the reasons of voters’ behaviour. They chose four countries and explored two regions in each of them. The research explains how different social and economic factors influence the support of right-wing populist parties and what role civil society organizations play in people’s choice. The objectives and objects of the research are the closest to those of my article.

The group of experts who undertook the study on the role of civil society organizations in facing populism uses various research methods, including statistical analysis, exploratory citizen surveys, focus groups. My study is based on statistic data available on the data-base V-dem, as Germany studies are not represented in that research. However, the general approach of both studies are not as different. The main difference is that my article is aimed at formulating a reliable theory based on a typical case-study and not at hypothesis testing.

To achieve the objective it is necessary to conceptualize the term populism and decide how to operationalize it. The same procedure is required for defining the state of civil society in Germany.

German populism

As I have already mentioned populism is a global phenomenon. Despite this fact, it is necessary to admit that populism is supposed to be studied in terms of regional and local conditions. Each country has its own historical background and social and economic status. Consequently, people there have different motivation of voting and different options.

Before starting to describe populist parties in Germany, it is important to give a definition to the phenomenon itself. Famous political scientist Cas Muddle in one of his papers seeks for the better definition of the populism concept. He proposes plenty of variants. One is that populism can be defined as “opportunistic policies with the aim of (quickly) pleasing the people/voters – and so ‘buying’ their support – rather than looking (rationally) for the ‘best option’.”(Muddle, 2004). Another interpretation is rather emotional according to the author and sounds as follows: “populism refers to the politics of the Stammtisch (the pub), i.e. a highly emotional and simplistic discourse that is directed at the ‘gut feelings’ of the people” (Muddle, 2004). Both definitions can explain several features of which populism as a phenomenon consists, but Cas Muddle is sure that they don’t define the essence of the concept. Widely used definition given by C. Muddle is the most relevant to my own study. The article “The Populist Zeitgeist” runs that populism is “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Muddle, 2004).

The idea of dividing society into ‘antagonistic groups’ can be applied in this study as well. While all people belong to the group of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ the conflict of interests is inevitable. With there being a conflict, it is necessary to find a solution. The starting point of my discourse is that while seeking for a settlement the most active representatives of both ‘homogeneous groups’ form their own associations. Finally, ‘the poor people’ will be represented by civil society and those from ‘corrupt elite’ who intend to put an end to the conflict cooperate in so-called ‘populist parties’. That is to say, the Muddle’s ‘homogeneity’ gives rise to creating new groups.

The Alternative for Germany today represents right wing populist parties in Germany. The party won seats in Parliament at the latest elections held in the country. There are different reasons that caused the increase in number of voters for populist parties. Since 2015, Germany has been facing refugee and immigration crises, which affect all areas of society, such as social and economic status, cultural environment, political behaviour and national policy. Brexit is another valid argument for the rise in populism in Germany. According to the Russian political scientist V. Vasilyev, United Kingdom European Union membership referendum caused Euroscepticism in other European countries where right-wing populist parties become popular as well (Vasilyev, 2017). Populist parties in this case try to appeal to people’s needs directly and receive some kind of backing in Germany.

These reasons also affect the policy that the party pursues. The party was founded in April 2013 as a center-right conservative party; it pursues the ideas of Euroscepticism and opposition to immigration[6]. The main values claimed in the party program are as follows: “direct democracy, the separation of powers, the rule of law, social market economics, subsidiarity, federalism, family values, and German cultural heritage”[7]. Their position on the way democracy is to be realized over the country is clear: they want elections to be a real expression of people’s will, call for direct elections of the President and what is more the party stands for limiting the power of the parties on political process. The last point is rather contradictory while speaking about democratic principles as long as multiparty system is one of the most essential attributes to build a stable democratic system.

The party’s rhetoric about European Union runs as follows: “We oppose the idea to transform the European Union into a centralised federal state. We are in favour of returning the European Union to an economic union based on shared interests, and consisting of sovereign, but loosely connected nation states”[8]. They also reject the idea of joint European army and stand for a strong security policy implemented by the government itself. AfD also claims that the government must carry out effective social programs. The party is advocate of German identity and considers Islamic culture to be destructive for the ‘liberal-democratic constitutional order’: “The AfD firmly opposes Islamic practice which is directed against our liberal-democratic constitutional order, our laws, and the Judeo-Christian and humanist foundations of our culture”[9]. From all the statements becomes clear that populism not always bases on anti-democratic rhetoric. In terms of German populism we can talk about a special kind of democracy ‘with adjectives’, that is to say anti-liberal democracy[10].

After giving a general outlook of the main contemporary populist party in Germany, I will proceed to the operationalization of the main variable of my study. In this article, the success of right-wing populist party is presented by the results of Federal elections. Such data cannot reveal the full information about the voters’ motivation. At the same time, it provides a visual display of people’s choice.

For a better comprehension of the elections results, there is a need in describing the main features of the German electoral system. People in Germany according to the German Basic Law have two votes. One goes for a Member of Parliament directly, that is to say the candidate wins a seat if it gets the plurality of votes in the electoral district. The other is for a party list. Such system is called proportional, that is to say the percentage of votes and those of seats is divided proportionally. Here are the results of the latest elections held in 2013 and 2017.




25.7 %

DIE LINKE                

8.6 %


8.4 %


7.4 %


4.8 %


4.7 %

                            Official provisional result of the 2013 Bundestag election[11]        



% of votes

% of seats






Social democrats



Die Linke

Radical left












Populist right



German elections 2017: full results[12]

These results show that since their creating and first elections in 2013, the AfD party managed to clear the 5% hurdle and finally won seats in Bundestag in 2017. The figures show that the party gains popularity with people but it is not still enough to get the majority of seats. The Alternative for Germany represents the opposition to A.Merkel’s refugee welcoming policy. It is important, as long as the immigrant program is a clue in all parties programs. It can be concluded that in the country the anti-immigrant rhetoric is picking up steam among people.

            State of Civil Society in Germany

To operationalize the state of civil society I turned to the database V-Dem. One of the methods to measure this variable is to calculate the number of civil society organizations in the country. However, the problem is that it is almost impossible to take into account every organization, as some of them are not registered. V-Dem does not submit such data. For this reason, my study is based on the indexes, which show the different aspects of civil society state. The table below represents the main indicators that V-Dem investigators take into account to analyze the state of civil society in a country.

  • Index
  • Question

Core Civil Society Index

How robust is civil society?

CSO Participatory Environment

Which of these best describes the involvement of people in civil society organizations (CSOs)?

CSO Consultation

Are major civil society organizations (CSOs) routinely consulted by policymakers on policies relevant to their members?

CSO anti-system movements

Among civil society organizations, are there anti-system opposition movements?

CSO entry and exit

To what extent does the government achieve control over entry and exit by civil society organizations (CSOs) into public life?

CSO repression

Does the government attempt to repress civil society organizations (CSOs)?

CSO women's participation

Are women prevented from participating in civil society organizations (CSOs)?

Religious organization consultation

Are major religious organizations routinely consulted by policymakers on policies relevant to their members?

Religious organization repression

Does the government attempt to repress religious organizations?

The table was created with reference to the database V-dem official Web site[13]

The following graph represents the figures in a more spectacular way. The main feature is that no indicators change seriously over the years. It indicates the stability of German civil society level.  The other important issue is that all those figures reveal the high level of studied variable.

                  The picture taken from database V-Dem official website[14]

There is a need to clarify all these data to make any further conclusions. The team of V-Dem investigators include in the term Civil Society Organization the following aspects: “interest groups, labor unions, spiritual organizations if they are engaged in civic or political activities, social movements, professional associations, charities, and other non-governmental organizations”[15]. A ‘robust civil society’ means a strong one, where all those CSOs are autonomous and citizens are in the right to pursue their political goals independently and freely providing that everyone acts within the law bounds.

Core civil society index aims to demonstrate how robust the civil society is, that is to say which are the limits of CSOs’ activity and what is the role of the government in this process. The data from the table show that despite the sufficiently high level of CSO repression by the government in Germany, the country demonstrates a high state of CSO Participatory Environment . The index of CSO enter and exit shows that the government undertakes attempts to control the impact of the organizations to the policy, but the figures are not so high. The main conclusion is that in case of Germany there is a base to talk about civil society involvement in implementing the national policy.

The obstacle to right-wing populist parties in Germany.

The figures show that the state of civil society in Germany is robust and is not changing over the latest years since 2013. For this study, it means that there is not any direct correlation between two variables. The success of Alternative for Germany is obvious according to the results of the elections held in 2017 in Germany. However, this article defines ‘success’ as winning the majority of seats in the Parliament. Even if a party achieves a breakthrough having passed the 5% hurdle during its second elections, it does not mean its ceasing the power.

The stability of German civil society engagement is to be considered as a ‘restraining’ factor on course to coming to power for right-wing populist parties in Germany. Multiple crises facing Europe today caused the rise of populism. However, one is supposed to take into account that the majority of people in Germany are members of CSOs, which affect national policy and have close relationship with both Federal and local authorities. Even if such organizations cannot prevent strongly the appearance and further winning seats of right-wing populist parties, they are able to restrain their success.

The high civil society index and people’s engagement in Germany develop facilities for maintaining democratic institutions that provide political regime steadiness. Though German electoral system allow radical parties to stand in Federal elections, voters’ behaviour is dictated by their belonging to the robust civil society.


The article studied the phenomenon of populism and focused on the main features of German radical right-wing political party the Alternative for Germany. The analysis of the party programme gave the opportunity to consider its ideology as a populist one. The study operationalized success of right-wing populist parties as winning the majority of seats in the Parliament. The elections results in 2013 and 2017 showed that the Alternative for Germany  managed to pass the hurdle during its second elections and started gaining popularity among society faced with multiple European crises.

The article also researched the state of German civil society and provided figures from database V-Dem. The main conclusion is that German civil society state is high enough. The numerous civil society organizations draw significant part of people in their activity and according to the Core Civil Society Index affect national policy. The study was based on the following indicators: Core Civil Society Index, CSO Participatory Environment, CSO Consultation , CSO anti-system movements, CSO entry and exit, CSO repression, CSO women's participation, Religious organization consultation, Religious organization repression. I chose the years of 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018 to assess the changes because the populist party AfD contested the elections in 2013 and 2017 and even achieved serious results during its latest attempt having won seats in Bundestag.

The research had the objective to formulate a theory based on Germany studies. It was concluded that the high level of civil society state in Germany didn’t affect the success of populist party directly but restrained the AfD’ s chances to win the majority of seats in the Parliament. I suggest the following theory: the higher the civil society state is, the less voters populist parties attract and the less chances to come up to power they have. The theory can be checked in the next comparative study among the countries with high civil society rate and populist parties gaining popularity over the latest years and the countries with lower civil society rate and strong populist parties.


  1. Aslandis P. (2015) Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective// Political Studies. Vol 64, № 1. P. 88-104.
  2. Decker, F. Right-wing populism as a challenge for civil society (2018) Zeitschrift fur Evangelische Ethik, 62 (3), pp. 168-182
  3. Inglehart, R.F. & Norris, P. (2016) Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash// HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series. RWP16-026.
  4. Kneuer M. (2019) The tandem of populism and Euroscepticism: a comparative perspective in the light of the European crises// Contemporary Social Science, № 14:1. P. 26-42.
  5. Mudde, C. (2004) The Populist Zeitgeist // Government and Opposition, Vol.39, № 4. P. 541 – 563.
  6. Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe// Cambridge University Press. 405 p.
  7. Nechayev D.N. (2002) RG: from a "Parties State" to a "Public Associations State"?// Polis. Political studies. № 2. P. 155-159.
  8. Vasilyev V. (2017) Right-wing populism in Germany: an alarming trend// Observer. № 324. P. 47-65.

[1] EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Report (2016). Available at: (Accessed at 20 April 2019)

[2] Oxford dictionary. Available at: (Accesses at 24 April 2019)

[3] EU-Russia Civil Society Forum Report (2016). Available at:  (Accessed at 20 April 2019)

[4] CIVICUS Civil Society Index Report for Germany (2005). Available at:   (Accesses at 19 April, 2019)

[5]Societies outside Metropolises: the role of civil society organizations in facing populism. Study (2019). Available at: (Accesses at 20 April, 2019)

[6] Alternative for Germany. Official website. Available at: (Accesses on 20 April 2019)

[7] Manifesto for Germany (2017). Available at: (Accesses on 20 April 2019)

[8] Manifesto for Germany (2017). Available at: (Accesses on 20 April 2019)

[9] Manifesto for Germany (2017). Available at: (Accesses on 20 April 2019)

[10] Mudde, C, ‘Populism in Europe : a primer’, Open Democracy, 12 May 2015. Available at: (Accesses 19 April 2019)

[11] Official provisional result of the 2013 Bundestag election (2013). Available at: (Accesses on 20 April 2019)

[13][Internet Source]: (Accesses 20 April 2019)

[14][Internet Source]:  (Accesses 20 April 2019)

[15][Internet Source]:  (Accesses 20 April 2019)