Sahra Wagenknecht’s Party Is Mainly a Threat to the Right

Sebastian Friedrich
Ingar Solty
Julia Damphouse

Germany’s former Die Linke parliamentary leader Sahra Wagenknecht has founded a new party. She claims it’s a voice for the ignored middle and working classes — but the party is mainly focused on winning over Germans who’ve turned to the far right.

Sahra Wagenknecht at the Die Linke federal party congress on June 9, 2018, in Leipzig, Germany. (Jens Schlueter / Getty Images)

As we enter the new year, it is nearly impossible to predict how Germany’s political landscape will look in twelve months’ time. 2024 will not only see June’s European elections, but also decisive contests this fall in the Eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg. Much of the uncertainty owes to former Die Linke (The Left) politician Sahra Wagenknecht — and her attempt to build a new party, which aims to enter all four races.

According to polls, her self-titled Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) could receive more than 10 percent of the vote, and even over 20 percent in the former East. Research suggests that she appeals to voters of all parties and could probably also mobilize current nonvoters. But above all, she appeals to those who recently opted for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), an anti-immigration party of the far right.

Of course, polls are no substitute for real election results, and polling numbers are not explanations in themselves. To understand why Wagenknecht’s new party could harm the Right in particular, a deeper analysis of the political situation is required. The current so-called populist moment in Germany, coming later than some other European countries, is characterized by the overlap of three main developments: an economic crisis, a political crisis, and a growing distrust of the established parties across significant sections of the population. Fifteen years ago, for example, there was precisely this kind of political turbulence in some Southern European countries in the wake of the Eurozone crisis.

Germany’s political crisis, and the rising mistrust among the population over the past decade, has often been diagnosed with terms such as “disenchantment” and “post-democracy.” Recently, approval ratings for the so-called traffic light coalition government (named after the red of Olaf Scholz’s Social-Democratic Party, the yellow of the uber-neoliberal Free Democrats, and the Greens) have fallen to historic lows. Yet polls also show that there is little faith that the Christian Democrats — still the largest opposition party — could deliver better alternatives. The crisis in the party system is deepening, while antiestablishment attitudes are on the rise.

The economic crisis which is only now breaking out after years of relative stability is just another factor contributing to the growing political crisis. As a result of war, sanctions, and countersanctions, as well as the aftereffects of the pandemic, there is a creeping impoverishment of broad sections of the population. In 2022, inflation-adjusted real wages fell by 4.1 percent. Even among well-paid workers, the fear of deindustrialization, job loss, and social decline is rampant.

An Antiestablishment?

This disaffection has so far primarily benefited the far-right AfD, whose support has more than doubled since summer 2022. Its current success also owes to the fact that it has often appeared to be the only or most consistent opposition in recent crises: in the “refugee crisis,” when it played on fears of social decline by targeting migrants; during the coronavirus pandemic, when it rallied anti-lockdown discontent and exploited the often-heated politics around compulsory vaccination; and today, faced with the war in Ukraine, as it presents itself as a “peace party” that speaks out against arms deliveries to Kyiv and in favor of negotiations. Although its anti-welfarist and budget-cutting economic and fiscal policies would primarily benefit capital, the AfD time and again uses its culture-war rhetoric to make itself seem like an antiestablishment force.

This crisis moment has thus been given a clear right-wing spin. And indeed, the more that the AfD provides the target for all the other parties’ warnings against “populism,” the more effectively it exploits this role to its own advantage. If the establishment and above all the ruling “traffic light” coalition is against the AfD, then for many citizens who see the prevailing politics as directed against them, the AfD looks like it must be on their side. Many people who feel powerless under capitalism and the ruling political system feel a sense of empowerment when they vote for a party that the media and political establishment is clearly as afraid of as they were of radical-left Die Linke in the late 2000s.

The problem for Die Linke is that, in the sixteen years since its official foundation in 2007, it has been unable to effectively capitalize on Germany’s various economic and political crises. Although its program is by far the most critical of the system and its electoral strategy is based on class politics, it is often perceived as only a slightly more left-wing version of the Greens and Social-Democrats. Many voters now see Die Linke as a part of the establishment, arguably because it acted too timidly and took an overly pro-government line during the height of previous crises.

Whatever one thinks of Wagenknecht, it must be acknowledged that this timidity does not apply to the firebrand politician, who has consistently established herself as an antiestablishment populist. Yet paradoxically, no other Die Linke politician (former or current) is as firmly a part of the media elite — invited on TV so often — as she is. This is not as fundamental a contradiction as it first appears. Her quick-wittedness and high public profile are not the only reasons she makes a good guest on the small screen. It is also that her intensity and penchant for exaggeration make talk shows more entertaining and help boost ratings.

Wagenknecht comes across as authentic — and is an unyielding voice in debates on migration policy, the coronavirus pandemic, and on the war in Ukraine. This may also be one of the reasons why, despite her current commitment to “small business,” courting ordoliberal economics, she continues to be held in high regard by some on the left of Die Linke. Wagenknecht’s admirers are not limited to disgruntled supporters of the left-wing party, for the public are tired of politicians who are merely party spokespeople and always love mavericks who have made a name for themselves by going against the prevailing tide of their own parties — from Heiner Geißler, the Christian-Democratic critic of capitalism, to Wolfgang Kubicki, who likes to present himself as a rebel within Free Democrat ranks.

Culture War or Class Politics

Germany is stuck with a toxic polarization between a seemingly “progressive” government establishment and a radical right-wing alternative, with the Christian-Democrats — magnetically attracted to the right-wing pole — oscillating between the two. A Wagenknecht party has the potential to escape this dynamic. If the establishment of the party succeeds, a diffuse populist project could form around Wagenknecht that cannot be clearly categorized as belonging to the left or right of the party-political spectrum. It could also even be a party project with a structurally left-wing approach, finding its place in the gap in the party system for a political force focused on distributional policies.

There is, however, a serious danger that Wagenknecht could focus on trying to win over the not inconsiderable number of voters from the Right by relying on nationalist, antimigration, and culture-war rhetoric. Whether BSW can instead become a left-wing project will depend on how far trade-union voices are heard in the new party. To achieve this, Wagenknecht will have to resolve the obvious contradiction between being in favor of higher wages, collective bargaining, and pensions, and her now-common emphasis on better conditions for small and medium-sized enterprises. The question is whether she is willing to eventually come out clearly in favor of working people, even if it means bad news for small capitalists. Or, indeed, whether the influx of left-wing activists into BSW will force her to do this — against her own will, but as the price she pays for having a politically experienced membership base.

The left wing of the Social Democratic Party, Die Linke, and the socialist left as a whole could benefit if an essentially class-political movement were able to develop around the BSW party project. The ideal scenario would be a party that campaigns for necessary renewal and that opposes the “unimaginativeness of the establishment,” as the historian and political scientist Hans-Jürgen Puhle once aptly described it. But precisely because Wagenknecht sounds conservative in terms of social policy and is clearly trying to avoid being perceived as a left-winger, she represents a greater electoral threat to the Right than to the Left. Polls suggest that Die Linke would hardly lose any votes to BSW, as their voter milieus are too different.

Many of Wagenknecht’s statements are difficult to digest, as she takes notes from the AfD playbook and feeds resentment against migrants. Yet, a new party with her at its helm could have a significant impact on our current populist moment. The rise of the AfD could be slowed down and perhaps even stopped. The debate could return from cultural dividing lines to the structural socioeconomic issues where the Left is strongest and where the failure of the establishment to act is preparing the ground for fascism. Serving an anti-fascist function of this kind would not be the only paradox in Wagenknecht’s contradictory project.