No German political figure has been a more painful thorn for allies and adversaries alike in the past year than Sahra Wagenknecht. A former parliamentary leader for the socialist Left Party and still one of its dwindling number of MPs, Wagenknecht has grown into a source of bitterness among her colleagues, who have grown tired of the endless media attention she receives and her defiance of party discipline. While the Left Party’s polling figures have dipped below 5%, Wagenknecht’s popularity has surged, and the Left Party has made her an ultimatum to “clarify” her position on her own party soon.
Speculation has been mounting for months that Wagenknecht may start her own political party, not least after a startling opinion poll released in late July by the Civey research institute suggested that 20% of Germans could “imagine in principle” voting for a hypothetical party led by the left-wing politician.
Already a regular on German political talk shows, Wagenknecht’s public profile exploded last year when she became the leader of a “peace campaign” demanding that the West stop arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. Elsewhere, Wagenknecht has criticized her own party leadership for pandering to what she calls “lifestyle leftists,” whose policies of inclusion for marginalized communities, she argues, are marginalizing the Left Party’s core voters.
The Wagenknecht phenomenon — A threat to the far-right
Though her party does not even exist yet, Wagenknecht has grown particularly popular in eastern Germany, and a Thuringia poll by the Insa institute in July found that Wagenknecht’s still non-existent party could potentially win an election in her home state – with 25% of the vote, three points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in second place. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in the aftermath of her “rally for peace” in February, Thuringia’s AfD leader Björn Höcke — himself no stranger to provocation — invited Wagenknecht to defect to the far-right AfD.
This, according to fellow Left Party MP and former Wagenknecht staffer Christian Leye, proves that the AfD, currently surging in the polls, fears her more than anyone else in the German political landscape. “Many people rightly feel that the government is not making policies for working people: everything is getting more and more expensive, war and sanctions policies have fueled inflation, and public infrastructure is in terrible shape,” Leye told DW. “For all those who are rightly dissatisfied, Sahra Wagenknecht could become a social and peace policy choice. And that is bitterly necessary at the moment, precisely because we must not leave the field open to a party like the AfD!”
Leye’s analysis gets some support from the work of Sarah Wagner, a postdoctoral researcher in political science at Mannheim University who has studied the Wagenknecht phenomenon. Her popularity, Wagner has found, rivals that of AfD leaders even among supporters of the far-right party itself.
“What we’re seeing is that the immigration issue is very strongly associated with Wagenknecht,” Wagner told DW. “Nevertheless, her potential is not limited to people who are critical of immigration, she is also getting support from people who are generally conservative — for example, people who are critical of climate protection, or against the rights of LGBTQI communities.”
Wagner says that much of the AfD’s current support is not particularly committed, and so could be won over. “They are voters who are dissatisfied with democracy, who are conservative, and while many of them might not feel necessarily comfortable voting for the AfD, they don’t see any other party they could vote for,” she said.
Conservative society plus socialist economy?
Analysts have observed that Wagenknecht is offering something that has never been seen before in Germany: Conservative social values allied with socialist economic values. “We can’t really say exactly how many people align themselves with left-conservative values,” Wagner said. “But what we can say is that it’s a significant group. We have never seen this combination in a party in Germany before.”
The closest analogy to a hypothetical Wagenknecht party internationally might be the Socialist Party (SP) in the Netherlands, which has occasionally taken a tougher line on immigration, or the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which voted against a bill institutionalizing same-sex marriage.
Wagner’s study found that the potential for a Wagenknecht party was mainly in eastern Germany, but otherwise, she said, there was no clear demographic that she appealed to: Wagenknecht’s supporters are not especially young or old, or male or female, or from a particular class. That is a potentially rich seam to mine in Germany.
Wagenknecht’s future — a break from her past
Wagenknecht has said that she would not make a decision on her next move until the end of this year. If she did found a new party and took a splinter group of the Left Party’s parliamentarians, members and supporters with her, the move would potentially leave the party to which she owes her political career in ruins.
It would also be a momentous departure for Wagenknecht personally. Born in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian father in Jena, Thuringia, when it was part of the communist German Democratic Republic, Wagenknecht has spent virtually her entire adult life in the party now called the Left Party, including its original iteration, the Social Unity Party of Germany (SED), which governed East Germany.
Whether she decides to break away or not, analysts have already been mapping out Wagenknecht’s battle plan: A run in next spring’s European election to test the ground, followed by full-blown campaigns in three eastern German states in fall 2024: Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. Much of Germany’s political future could depend on her decision.
Edited by Rina Goldenberg
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