Citizens' Initiative

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A citizens' initiative is an interest group formed from the population that organizes self-help in its area on the basis of a specific political, social or ecological reason and thus possibly influences public opinion , state institutions, parties or other social groups. The citizens' initiative is one of the forms of political participation .

Many citizens' initiatives limit themselves to narrowly limited issues, which is why they are also referred to as so-called one-point organizations. In this point, they differ from political parties that cover the broadest possible spectrum of opinions and thus want to gain political power, and interest groups that represent clearly defined interest groups with the help of an organized substructure.

A citizens' initiative is grassroots , as it initiates change from the bottom up, i.e. starting from the population. The measures required to achieve the goal are coordinated and organized in order to save time and effort and to give more weight to the opinion or concern of the citizens' initiative. To this end, signatures are usually collected , demonstrations carried out, petitions written or a petition for citizens initiated.

The term “citizens' initiative” is not tied to a specific form of organization. Most citizens' initiatives are initially just loose groupings without fixed organizational structures. Requires the enforcement of the target, a longer-term commitment, often forming associations . Particularly if citizens' initiatives pursue long-term local political goals, they can also emerge from voting communities .

A study by the German Institute for Urban Studies from 1976 showed that at that time most citizens 'initiatives campaigned for better environmental conditions (17%), closely followed by citizens' initiatives for playgrounds and kindergartens (16%), against traffic planning (11.8%) and for a better or changed education system (8%).

Reasons for the emergence of citizens' initiatives

Triggers for the emergence of citizens' initiatives are, for example, problems of economic growth and the associated environmental pollution . This area is hardly covered by the interest groups.

Furthermore, their emergence is mostly due to a failure of political planners in parties and administrations. Many citizens criticized the fact that these planners primarily strive for factual correctness, but fail to recognize or ignore the needs of the population.

The extra-parliamentary opposition (APO) certainly also played a part in the development of citizens' initiatives .

Critics of citizens 'initiatives regard them as prevention alliances , which are often based on selfish neighbors' interests or particular interests and which sometimes hinder economic growth . This behavior is often characterized as the “ Saint Florian's Principle ” (English with Nimby for “Not In My Back Yard”).


As the first citizens' initiative after the Second World War , the Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald (SDW) was founded in 1947 by around 500 people to protect forests . In the 1970s, the citizens' initiative movement developed as an alternative to the APO. While the APO saw itself as a general movement against developments in parliaments, especially the Bundestag, the citizens' initiatives mostly tried to assert local interests across party lines. Many citizens 'initiatives came together in the 1970s to form state or federal associations (e.g. Federal Association of Citizens' Initiatives Environmental Protection , BBU) and formed the political basis for the founding of the Greens or Alternative Party.

In the 1990s, numerous new citizens' initiatives were founded in the East German federal states as a reaction to the conflicts that arose from the often formal and thoughtless "overlaying" of the German legal and administrative system over the East, which many East Germans consider unjust and is not felt to be appropriate to the situation. Striking examples are the citizens' initiatives "against excessive local taxes", "for just and acceptable taxes" and similar, which for example defend themselves against the fact that the legislature without exception considers every property owner to be so wealthy that he is called upon to pay further taxes in addition to the property tax which in extreme cases can reach the order of magnitude of the land value of the property in question.

Targeted strategies

It is indisputable that every citizens' initiative is rather singular and hardly transferable to other movements. On the other hand, it is a fact that we can learn from the successes, but also the failures of previous citizens' initiatives, what is more useful and what is more harmful.

Anyone who wants to start a citizens' initiative always needs staying power, a great ability to win and inspire fellow campaigners and financial supporters, as well as the courage to deal with an often imperturbable administration and in some cases also the malice of the local press bear. Even in the case of obviously absurd projects by the authorities, it cannot be assumed that a decision made there will be reversed - due to plausible counter-arguments from the citizens' initiative.

A citizens' initiative that is only closely related to one party direction is usually doomed to failure. It is important to include respected exponents from all bourgeois camps in the citizens' initiative and to show a willingness to compromise to a certain extent. Dogmatic rejection of the administration's intention does not lead to the goal. Instead, alternatives must be recognizable that deny the administration's original request, but at the same time suggest positive changes in the current situation. So arguments must be positive and constructive in order to signal to the population that the intentions of the administration are already out of date.

Background discussions with influential editors of local newspapers and regular press releases as well as letters to the editor of various types to local opinion makers can make party opinions uncertain. The upcoming elections in particular can accelerate this process.

Oldest citizens' initiative in Germany and Austria

Depending on the interpretation of the term, various initiatives claim the title “Germany's first citizens' initiative”:


  •, as a platform for numerous Viennese citizens' initiatives, wants to promote the implementation of the Agenda 21 instruments adopted by the United Nations in 1992 in accordance with the declaration of the municipalities in Johannesburg (2002; local action 21).


  • Meike Maser-Plag: Moving Citizens' Initiatives - A Guide for Practice. oekom Verlag Munich. 2020. 88 pages softcover or e-book, ISBN 978-3-96238-216-2 .
  • Rainer Buck: Citizens make politics. Influence - strategies - citizens' initiative (= Beltz-Quadriga-Taschenbuch . 550). Beltz Quadriga, Weinheim et al. 1991, ISBN 3-407-30550-8 .
  • Anton Pelinka : Citizens' Initiatives, Dangerous or Necessary? (= Ploetz pocket books on current affairs . Volume 1). Ploetz, Freiburg im Breisgau a. a. 1978, ISBN 3-87640-171-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Citizens' initiative  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations