Why the anger of Pegida protesters deserves close attention

People are tired of German politicians talking down to them like impatient school-masters

‘These people are on the streets because they want greater involvement in decisions that affect them – before they are made.’ Above, supporters of anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) hold flags during a demonstration in Dresden on January 12th. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

‘These people are on the streets because they want greater involvement in decisions that affect them – before they are made.’ Above, supporters of anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) hold flags during a demonstration in Dresden on January 12th. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

 

For a dozen Monday evenings hundreds, then thousands, of people have shuffled around Dresden, waving flags and shouting: “We are the people.” Watching their irate impotence last week, it was as if an angry army of Willy and Linda Lomans were on the move, chanting: “Attention must be paid.” Arthur Miller’s tragic couple from Death of a Salesman would have felt right at home at a Pegida march. The grassroots organisation has grown exponentially via Facebook, gathering momentum and support with a rallying cry about the apparent “Islamisation of the West”.

Pegida drew a record 25,000 people on to the streets on Monday, January 12th, and organisers read a six-point list of demands calling for more stringent migration rules, an end to “warmongering” against Russia and a reversal of local police funding cuts. For Pegida supporters, the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo were a timely indication that their concerns over Islamist violence were justified. Those concerns were underlined when police cancelled last night’s demonstration – the 13th – amid concrete threats from Islamic State (IS) against the march and Pegida frontman Lutz Bachmann.

At first glance, Pegida is an attempt to fill a gap in Germany’s public landscape occupied in France by the Front National or in Austria by the Freedom Party. With Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD a tainted brand – and since last year no longer sitting in the Saxon state parliament – Pegida spotted a gap in the political market as a platform for fringe nationalist and xenophobic thinking in eastern Germany. But caricaturing Pegida supporters as the lumpenproletariat, the “losers” of eastern Germany’s transformation process, falls short of reality. Two separate sociological analyses agree that the movement has sizeable support right into Germany’s educated, comfortable middle classes.

Enraged citizenry

WutbürgerWutbürgerWutbürger

Until Pegida, the public face of Germany’s Wutbürger was Thilo Sarrazin, a former politician and Bundesbanker, now author of bestselling books with take-no-prisoners theses. His first, Germany is Abolishing Itself, claimed that migrants were dumbing down Germany. His follow-up, Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro, painted Germany as a euro zone hostage to southern European profligacy. Sarrazin and Pegida say their success lies in exposing public debate in Germany, from the euro to migration, as a sham where any opinion is welcome once it is the “right” one: migration-friendly and pro-euro. Sarrazin and Pegida share an ability to identify public concerns, set up a series of supposed taboos, then tear them down with easy, populist answers. But the Wutbürger pressure cooker has been on the boil for years.

Pegida has caught Germany’s political establishment unawares. Perhaps because – outside of election time – they are less used to listening to their citizens than talking down to them. As contradictory as it sounds, Germany is a country suffering from a simultaneous excess and dearth of democracy. Germany’s postwar political system – a multilayered, federal system of checks and balances – means elections are always taking place somewhere, and that even urgent decisions take politicians a long time. But once election night is over, the same politicians rarely want to hear anyone’s opinion until the next time out.

Their indirect, representational democracy is a better way of addressing complex issues, they say, than what they see as the soundbite-dominated referendum culture of Switzerland or Ireland. Unfortunately for them, modern Germany has no shortage of examples of top-down decision-making gone wrong. Stuttgart’s train station, Hamburg’s concert hall or Berlin’s airport have all been crippled by corruption and delayed by opaque decision-making. In all cases, the citizens’ role is to keep quiet and sign the cheques for multibillion overruns.

For many observers, Germany’s top-down approach to a spike in asylum seekers is what has put wind in Pegida’s sails. Its warning on “Islamisation” has attracted Germany’s usual suspects of neo-Nazis, professional indignants and “not-in-my-backyard” xenophobes – groups Pegida critics say are beyond reason. But these critics overlook the many Pegida marchers from small-town Germany, whose first contact with asylum were the political decrees that a few dozen – or even a few hundred – asylum seekers would be arriving in their town within weeks. For these people, Pegida and its asylum campaign are a valve for wider concerns over how they are governed.

Direct democracy

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent

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