Mr. Stüwe, one of our readers asked whether the current restrictions of fundamental rights are appropriate. How do you assess the situation?
Protecting its citizens from internal and external dangers is an important government task. It is not only the right of democracies to protect life and limb of their citizens – it is their duty. Therefore, it might become necessary that governments temporarily restrict civil liberties. Invasions of individual fundamental rights, as are practiced in many other democracies, are thus generally legitimate. However, subject to strict limitations: These invasions are only rightful as long as they serve their purpose. If necessary, courts can review lawfulness of these invasions. In addition, every emergency measure must be limited in time and measures must be reasonable. Therefore, actions must be weighed carefully in order to guarantee a balance between protecting individual fundamental rights and the public interest in effective infection control. I have the impression that overall, Germany has succeeded quite well in keeping this difficult balance.
In many cities, including in Ingolstadt, people have demonstrated against these restrictions...
Also, and maybe even particularly in times of crisis, opposition and criticism are indispensable. They help us to evaluate measures for finding the balance and appropriateness when fighting the pandemic. Therefore, it is perfectly fine for citizens to take to the streets to protest against restrictions of civil liberties that they think go too far. The right to demonstrate was also affirmed by the courts, provided that hygiene measures and minimum distance are adhered to. This is a clear sign that constitutional democracy is functioning properly. However, I have the impression that not everyone participating in the demonstrations wants to demand respect for their fundamental rights. Unfortunately, there are some individuals who use the public sphere for disseminating crude conspiracy theories or even propagate right-wing extremist ideas.
In the last couple of months, the federal government has had the difficult task of informing citizens of the necessity of these measures despite a very insecure situation. Was it successful?
Up to now, I feel that the government was very successful in effectively fighting the pandemic while complying with democratic and constitutional principles at the same time. If you take a look at other democracies, you can see by far more drastic restrictions to civil liberties. In some countries, the heads of government were granted almost authoritarian powers. Some other countries try to detract from political failures in their country by disseminating targeted disinformation. So, when seen in comparison, I think that the measures taken in Germany were appropriate. I also believe that the public was adequately informed of the necessity of the protective measures and concepts. Of course, mistakes have been made. In the end, who can claim to be able to do everything right in such a historically exceptional situation? Overall, it can be said that Germany was still able to control infections better than many other countries.
However, there is criticism that different federal states have taken different measures...
The fact that emergency management in Germany is not only the government’s responsibility, but mainly falls under the responsibility of the federal states, has contributed to successful and effective protection. This type of separation of powers is a clear advantage in times of crisis. Like this, federal states are able to react flexibly depending on how severely they are affected by the pandemic.
Sometimes, however, it appears as if communicating rules of conduct was most important. Some say that politics was mainly didactics. Does this have any consequences on our political culture?
I do not believe that communicating rules of conduct was at the center of attention. I think, the decisive factors are responsibility and trust. Whoever holds political office bears a huge responsibility. However, politicians can only assume this responsibility when citizens trust them. Particularly during uncertain times, actions taken by democratic officials must be supported by trust even more strongly than under normal circumstances. If you look at current surveys, you can see that the acceptance rate of measures taken is very high: Two weeks after the curbs on movement had been imposed they were generally accepted by 93 per cent of citizens. Although the acceptance rate decreased slightly after that, the measures were still supported by a majority of people. This shows that people currently have great confidence in political decision-makers. This would certainly not be the case if people thought that everything was just political didactics.
How is political communication in Germany different from other European countries? France’s Emmanuel Macron spoke of a “war” against the coronavirus.
Certainly, using this kind of war terminology would be inappropriate in Germany. In this country, there are many historical reasons for avoiding war terminology at every opportunity. Other countries have other historical experiences and different cultures of political communication. Compared to Germany, military terminology is used much more often in France, and even more so in the USA. This bold language certainly has an impact. Some French people and US Americans like it, others have their problems with it. For reasons already stated above, however, we are not necessarily in a place to negatively judge or even condemn other countries’ political language.
In the USA, the behavior of President Donald Trump prompted citizens to protest. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly trivialized the danger. Is it not true that political responsibility starts with communication?
Exactly. In an exceptional situation, it is not only decisive to act appropriately in order to overcome a crisis, but also to find the right words when communicating. In this context, political responsibility means that politicians neither exaggerate nor trivialize facts when talking about dangers. When it comes to measures taken to fight a crisis, it is important to justify them plausibly and ensure that they are implemented transparently. This is the only way to ensure public acceptance of the measures.
Are we dealing with stubborn personalities here? Or can the differences be explained with different political cultures in the countries?
It is a bit of both. Political communication in the USA, for example, is much more aggressive than elsewhere. It is part of many US politicians’ mentality to personalize conflicts and personally attack political opponents. When talking of the current president Donald Trump, however, there is also a certain personal style involved that is probably unique in the history of the presidential office. Scientific facts are reinterpreted, risks are played down, critics are defamed and international partners snubbed. All this being said despite the fact that the USA compares quite unfavorably in an international comparison when it comes to how the pandemic is tackled. It is hard to understand why Trump still has high approval ratings among many US citizens; but this can be explained with the special characteristics of the country’s political culture.
Information on interviewee:
Prof. Dr. Klaus Stüwe is the holder of the Chair of Comparative Political Science and vice president for international affairs and profile development at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. In his research, he focuses on democratic theory, political communication and European integration.
The interview was conducted by Thomas Metten. He is a team member in the “Mensch in Bewegung” project. The project is jointly conducted by the KU and the Technische Hochschule Ingolstadt (THI). It is funded by the funding initiative “Innovative Hochschule” of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Free State of Bavaria.