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Germany in protest mode: From farmers to train drivers

January 14, 2024

The government's losing support, a far-right party is soaring in the popularity ratings and the whole country seems to be angry. Is democracy at risk in post-Merkel Germany?

Farmers protests in Berlin, with many people and tractors in the street. Berlin's Brandenburg Gate is visible in the Background
Not just in Berlin: In January 2024, thousands joined angry farmers in street protests across Germany.Image: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

The former German chancellor Angela Merkel had a reputation as being a steady hand at the wheel. In her 16 years in office, she was famous for sitting things out rather than taking action. Her pledge to voters was that their lives would continue in peace and affluence and that they had nothing to worry about.

That has turned out to be a fallacy, but past expectations live on.

When it came to power in December 2021, the current center-left government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) promised progress without the need for any belt-tightening. Nobody was prepared for the war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects.

Then the government planned a €60 billion ($65 billion) injection for a pain-free transformation to a carbon-neutral economy and society. The money had been left over from an emergency government loan approved during the COVID-19 pandemic, but unexpectedly not spent. Yet Germany's constitutional court declared this budgetary maneuver as unconstitutional in November 2023.

Fact check: Fakes about Germany farmers' protests

The government was faced with the task of plugging a hole in the budget while the economy is teetering on the verge of recession, and price hikes for energy and food have had an impact on the living standards of a large part of society.

Under these circumstances, tax hikes and subsidy cuts are regarded by many as a complete imposition. While some people are tired and resigned, others are furious at the government.

Farmers protests: Letting out pent-up anger

Farmers who are facing some subsidy cuts are particularly angry. They have been blocking highways and intersections, driving into cities in their tractors and bringing traffic to a standstill.

In northwestern Germany, farmers — allegedly supported by far-right extremists — tried to storm a ferry on which Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck was returning from a vacation.

The dramatic scene was reminiscent of protests during the COVID pandemic when crowds gathered repeatedly outside the private homes of politicians protesting restrictions they felt were overblown.

In 2016, the Germans appeared to be the least receptive to populist policies, according to a YouGov survey of European Union states. Things seem to have changed.

According to political journalist Albrecht von Lucke people are shifting to the fringes of the political spectrum, and he sees trends towards social division and dissolution. Germany, according to von Lucke, is turning away from consensus and constructive debate.

Germany: No more 'willingness to reach compromises?'

"Dispute is essential to democratic culture," Lucke told DW. "But if this dispute is no longer accompanied by a willingness to reach compromises, and instead every political interest group tries to extract the maximum, then democracy is eroded, then the government loses all authority and, ultimately, positions drift more and more to the fringes."

Political analyst Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, does not see it quite as dramatically.

"I don't think we should talk about society splitting into two equally large halves, but I see that the fringes of society are growing," she told DW, referring to those who express strong discontent and carry out protests like the farmers, but also the train drivers' union.

Both groups of protesters have the power to paralyze large parts of the country. For Lucke, the farmers' protest illustrates that everyone looks out only for themselves at the moment.

"The farmers have almost managed to get all the measures reversed and yet they still fight on to get the very last one reversed, too," Lucke says.

Münch believes that the farmers felt ignored because neither they nor their representatives had been consulted in advance: "They felt pushed to the margins and that their significance had not been recognized."

2024: A watershed year for Germany?

Many viewed fossil fuel phase-out as state intrusion

Farmers frequently say that they cannot deal with the pace of reform and new regulations in environmental and animal protection. Smaller farms, in particular, say that they are being given too little time to adapt to EU policy changes.

It is a feeling that is familiar to other parts of society. When the news emerged in 2023 that the government was planning to phase out fossil fuel heatings quickly, this prompted a big public outcry. Robert Habeck, in particular, came in for a bashing, but the coalition parties all declined in the polls.

"Up to then, people said 'we understand that things have to change a little,'" Münch said. "But that they would feel it so directly in their purses and wallets, their own basements and garages, that is the actual change that made people see this state as intrusive all of a sudden."

Hardly anyone in Germany really needs to feel overburdened, according to Münch: "We are a country that has a lot of resources, that is a welfare state." Understandably, people have concerns, but "we shouldn't let ourselves get carried away," she said.

AfD on the rise

But far-right populists beg to differ. The party that is profiting from all the discontent is the populist far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD). Its approval ratings have continued to climb. In the eastern German states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, where state elections are taking place in September, it is polling as the strongest party by far.

The AfD is fueling polarization.

"At the moment, I believe that there is a threat only because a part of the population may be easily instrumentalized," Münch said, adding that there is a growing number of people who say they are only being fed a pack of lies.

Journalist von Lucke is expecting 2024 to be a year of protest votes, especially as the problems within the coalition government show no sign of ending. "The quarrels will continue, frustration will grow in the country and we will be faced with protest votes."

This article was originally written in German.

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