Peter Kuras, The Guardian, October 31, 2023
Sahra Wagenknecht is a 54-year-old politician who, until recently, was a member of the struggling leftwing party Die Linke. She is also a household name in Germany. A figure with undeniable charisma, she’s a stalwart on television talkshows, where her ability to present sometimes radical opinions as though they were common sense makes for lively discussions and entertaining viewing. Now, with the launch of her own party – named after herself – Germans across the country may soon get the chance to vote for her too. Does she stand a chance – and what does the fanfare about the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) tell us about the direction of German politics?
In part, at least, people pay attention to Wagenknecht because she’s long had a penchant for radical positions. When she first came of political age, even Die Linke was concerned that she was a Stalin apologist. But Wagenknecht’s politics have changed with age. Her communism has been tempered by some expressions of admiration for the free market. She’s also become increasingly critical of immigration, Germany’s Covid-19 policies, sanctions on Russia, climate protesters and “lifestyle leftists”, as Wagenknecht dubs many advocates for racial and gender equality. Unsurprisingly, Die Linke hardly seems sorry to see her go: “It’s like with the grandmother who has cancer,” Dietmar Bartsch, co-chair of the party’s parliamentary committee, told Der Tagesspiegel. “You know she’s going to die, but you’re still sad when the time comes.”
There aren’t many new ideas in Wagenknecht’s political platform, though the way they are combined could be novel. Her economic plans are sprinkled with conspiratorial references to foreign monopolies, and she calls for a substantial increase in the minimum wage, but at their core her proposals are broadly similar to other centre-left policies. Her rhetoric about immigration, however, comes straight from the far-right AfD’s playbook. “There shouldn’t be any neighbourhoods,” she said in a 2021 interview, “where natives are in the minority.”
Wagenknecht’s politics clearly resonate with the German public. A recent survey of German voters found that 14% would vote for a Wagenknecht party, putting it just one point behind the governing Social Democrats (SPD) and two points ahead of the Green party. It speaks to the breadth of Wagenknecht’s coalition that, if initial polls are to be believed, she would take votes not only from her own former political home, but also from the centre-right CDU, the left-leaning Greens and the pro-business FDP. Most of all, though, Wagenknecht is trying to appeal to a section of AfD voters. Much of the party’s success in recent elections, she claims, comes from Germans who “don’t vote for the AfD because they’re rightwing. They vote for the AfD because they’re angry.” Wagenknecht’s attempts to siphon off the AfD’s protest voters currently seems like the only viable plan to mitigate the far-right party’s electoral success.
The reaction of the AfD has been surprisingly muted. There must be some disappointment: Björn Höcke, the party’s chair in the eastern state of Thuringia, has been practically begging her to join for months. But even if initial estimates are correct, the AfD would still be left with a compelling 17% electoral share, putting it second only to the CDU. Moreover, Wagenknecht’s populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric goes a long way towards legitimising the AfD’s own favourite electoral strategy. More troubling yet, if her party is as successful as early polls indicate, there will be fewer paths left to form majority governments without either the AfD or Wagenknecht, at a state or federal level. “A truly alternative left,” Höcke said in a recent statement, “could have an important function in the reconfiguration of the German party system.” Wagenknecht may take votes away from the AfD, but she may also make it possible for it to take political power if coalition partners find themselves forced to choose between two populist parties.
Germany’s main political parties are weak. The electorate is divided and governing coalitions, which have so far worked to keep the AfD out, have been increasingly divisive and ineffectual as a result. Infighting and incompetence have prevented the government from fulfilling many of its electoral promises. It is hardly the first to struggle: Germany’s politicians have been promising to streamline its often cumbersome bureaucracy, improve the country’s technological infrastructure and foster a more robust tech sector for decades. But political squabbles and a lack of imagination have prevented any meaningful change. Now, with a recession looming, resentment about the ineptitude of the political class is likely to grow even more pronounced.
Wagenknecht’s platform is still developing, but it isn’t likely to be all that different from the other parties’. The core governmental promises of better social services, a stronger economy and less bureaucratic hassle are shared across the political spectrum. The AfD and the Greens both campaign on increasing funding for education. Wagenknecht will, too. It won’t be surprising if she issues invectives against immigrants and climate activists.
But she’s hardly the only one who has figured out that you don’t necessarily need sound policy solutions or real leadership if you play on people’s resentments. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, recently announced his plans to “deport on a grand scale”, while the leader of the CDU, Friedrich Merz, has gone on a veritable tirade, accusing Berlin neighbourhoods of not being adequately German and demanding that new immigrants to Germany declare their allegiance to Israel. With the world increasingly unsettled by violence in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as by the ongoing series of climate crises, German politics is making a sharp turn in a nationalist-populist direction. And Sahra Wagenknecht could soon be accelerating that journey.