New at Leuphana: Prof. Dr. Sarah Engler

Majority is not everything

2023-01-16 The Professor of Comparative Politics studies the influence of parties on democracy. But what is meant by democracy is something about which parties are once again increasingly at odds.

New at Leuphana: Prof. Dr. Sarah Engler ©Brinkhoff-Moegenburg/Leuphana
„It is difficult to establish a party in the long term. It doesn't work without content - even when people are dissatisfied with democracy."

During the Corona pandemic, democratic politicians were faced with a dilemma: "Fundamental rights such as freedom of movement or the right of assembly may not be restricted, even with a parliamentary majority," explains Dr. Sarah Engler, who has held the chair of Comparative Politics since this semester. This principle is elementary and protects those who are not in power in a democracy. It is therefore not possible for a government to deprive its political opponents of the right to vote by a majority decision. "The judiciary would intervene immediately. Germany, for example, has a comparatively strict separation between the executive and judicial powers. That protects democratic rights."

What happened during the Corona pandemic? "In a crisis situation, you are allowed to restrict rights. During the pandemic, a higher good was protected than, for example, freedom of movement, namely the physical integrity of the entire population. However, restrictions on fundamental rights must always be proportional to the risk and limited in time. That's the theory, but at the beginning of the pandemic no one knew how great the risk was," explains the political scientist.

"As a result, states and their governments have restricted fundamental rights to varying degrees. In Italy and Spain, you were no longer allowed to leave the house. In Germany you couldn't meet anyone, in Switzerland at times four people. In places where fundamental rights were already strongly protected in normal times, the restrictions during the pandemic were also weaker," explains the researcher. For example, France restricted freedoms more than Sweden. In France, there were already many restrictions before Corona to prevent terrorism.

Another example is Hungary, which has been ruled by the right-wing populist Victor Orbàn since 2010: "Hungary was already on the path of democratic deconstruction long before the pandemic. Under the guise of fighting the pandemic, the government then even restricted freedom of expression. No false reports about the pandemic were to be spread. However, this step was taken without a time limit and is thus simply another step in Hungary's path of "autocratisation".

Viktor Orbàn rejects criticism from the judiciary or the opposition, saying that he was elected and that his measures reflected the majority opinion. Why is he now being stopped by a court that was not elected? "This argument very often comes from the right-wing populist party spectrum," explains Sarah Engler. But democracy is more than just representing the majority opinion, she adds. "The rights of the government must be limited so that it does not abuse its power and future changes of power are still possible," explains Sarah Engler.

The party researcher also deals with centre-populist parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which often win many votes in times of great political discontent. However, their success is often short-lived: "There are similar parties in Eastern Europe, for example. They criticise the respective government in the country as corrupt or power-obsessed. But they often have no programme themselves. At the beginning, one third of the voters of the Five Star Movement came from the left, one third from the right and one third from the centre. When they come to power, they often disappear again after one or two legislative periods. It is difficult to establish a party in the long term. It doesn't work without content - even when people are dissatisfied with democracy."

The political scientist studied and earned her doctorate at the University of Bern. Until 2018, Sarah Engler was a research assistant and doctoral candidate at the Chair of European and Comparative Politics at the University of Bern. In 2017, she spent a semester researching at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, Italy. In 2019, she became a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Political Science and the Centre for Democracy Research, University of Zurich. From September 2021 to August 2022, she was Visiting Professor of Direct Democracy and Participation at the University of Zurich. Since September 2022, she has been Professor of Comparative Politics at the Institute of Political Science at Leuphana.


  • Prof. Dr. Sarah Engler