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Germany's new populists BSW challenge the far-right AfD

Germany's new populist party BSW challenges the far-right AfD in the EU elections 2024. Led by Sahra Wagenknecht, former Left Party leader, BSW gains over 6% of votes.

Sahra Wagenknecht and her BSW allies jubilant on Sunday evening
Sahra Wagenknecht is left-wing on economic issues, but closer to the far-right on issues like immigration and gender diversityImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

When prominent left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht announced that she was founding her own party last year, it was — some said — the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) that had the most cause for concern.

Political analysts have been arguing that the unique position of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) — left-wing on economic issues but closer to the far-right on issues like immigration and gender diversity — may pose a threat to the AfD. The European election on June 9 was the first big test of that theory.

Wagenknecht celebrated the European election on Sunday as a victory after she took over 6% of the German vote in the preliminary results, giving the BSW six of Germany's 96 seats in the European Parliament. "This is a fantastic result," she told public broadcaster ZDF. "It was difficult: We were a long way down on the ballot papers, our supporters weren't interested in the European election, at least that's what the surveys said. But now we know how right and necessary it was for us to found this new party."

Sahra Wagenknecht facing journalists before addressing a press conference about her planned foundation of a new party, on October 23, 2023 in Berlin.
Media attention is guaranteed whenever Sahra Wagenknecht enters a stageImage: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

At a press conference in Berlin in late April, Wagenknecht explained her own phenomenon in characteristically well-honed yet simple terms. "It's clear that we have a government that is very unpopular," she told a group of reporters. "The German economy is in a crisis … we've had above-average inflation, and the government parties have dropped very severely. And of course, that has led to the AfD and the far-right of the spectrum being strengthened a lot."

Her decision to split from the Left Party, whose parliamentary group she once led, decimated the socialist party's Bundestag representation and may have destroyed it as a significant political force in the future — 10 of the Left Party's 38 Bundestag members have defected to the BSW. In the EU vote, Left Party support dwindled below 3%.

The reason she felt she had to move, Wagenknecht said, was because the old socialist party was "no longer reaching the people who are dissatisfied, who want a serious alternative."

She also indirectly admitted that she is fishing in the same waters as the AfD. "We believe, and this is also shown in many surveys, that a large share of AfD voters are protest voters," she said. "They're not right-wingers, and they don't support far-right positions … they feel like they're not being listened to, and they aren't being listened to — it's not just a feeling, it's actually true."

Forcing peace on Ukraine

Though she has ruled out forming a coalition with the far-right, she does share some policies with the AfD: The BSW opposes arms exports to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, and it also wants to demilitarize the EU and remove US nuclear weapons from the continent.

It also wants a diplomatic solution in the war in Ukraine, though Wagenknecht remains vague on how exactly a diplomatic solution might be achieved since the aggressor Russia has shown little inclination to join peace talks. At the press conference in Berlin in April, Wagenknecht said that the West could offer to stop arming Ukraine if Russia agreed to an immediate cease-fire — which would presumably force Ukraine to cede the territory that Russia has invaded.

Mainz carnival parade float showing Vladimir Putin steering a pink car whose passengers - Alice Weidel and Sahra Wagenknecht - are waving Russian flags
In 2024, Carnival floats poked fun at AfD leader Alice Weidel and BSW leader Sahra Wagenknecht, showing them as sitting in the front of a car steered by Vladimir PutinImage: Arne Dedert/picture alliance/dpa

The Wagenknecht phenomenon

In recent years, perhaps no German political figure has been a more painful thorn for both allies and adversaries than Wagenknecht. Well before last year's split, she had become a focus of bitterness among Left Party colleagues, who were tired of the media attention she received and her defiance of party discipline.

Wagenknecht often criticized her party leadership for pandering to what she calls "lifestyle leftists" — whose policies of inclusion for marginalized communities, she argues, are themselves marginalizing the Left Party's core voters, especially the working classes in eastern Germany.

Wagenknecht has now grown particularly popular in eastern Germany. EU election results in eastern Germany show the BSW poll at well over 10%. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that Thuringia's AfD leader Björn Höcke once invited Wagenknecht to defect to his party.)

This, according to BSW Bundestag member Christian Leye, proves that the AfD 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 last year.

Leye's analysis chimes in with the work of Sarah Wagner, a postdoctoral researcher in political science at Mannheim University who studied Wagenknecht's rise. Wagner found that the politician's popularity 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.

left to right: Smiling Amira Mohamed Ali, Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine holding up their voting cards at the pary confereence
At the BSW founding conference Sahra Wagenknecht got full support from her party's members — including her husband, former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine (r)Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Conservative society plus socialist economy?

Some analysts say 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 the BSW internationally might be the Socialist Party (SP) in the Netherlands, which has also taken a tougher line on immigration, or the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which voted against a bill institutionalizing same-sex marriage.

Wagenknecht's future — a break from her past

Wagenknecht's departure was also momentous for her political career. Born in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian father in Jena, Thuringia, Wagenknecht 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), the communist party that governed East Germany.

Analysts have already been mapping out Wagenknecht's battle plan: The good result in this week's European election will be 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 success or failure.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

This article was first published on August 11, 2023. It was updated on June 10, 2024 to reflect the latest developments.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight