Prominent left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht finally announced that she was founding her own party on Monday, potentially posing a threat to both the socialist Left Party she is leaving and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
At a press conference in Berlin, she announced the foundation of an association named Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht ("Sahra Wagenknecht alliance"), to collect donations and prepare the ground for the new party.
Speaking to a crowd reporters, Wagenknecht made clear that her main target was the German government, which she condemned as "possibly the worst government" the federal republic had ever had.
Many analysts have speculated that Wagenknecht's unique political position — left-wing on economic issues, but closer to the far-right on issues like immigration and gender diversity — could pose a threat to the recently surging AfD.
On issues like arms exports to Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia, both of which Wagenknecht opposes, she does indeed share policies with the AfD. But on Monday she also said she would not collaborate with the AfD, and took the opportunity to rail against the press, accusing the German media of condemning her as "pro-Putin" or "pro-Russian" because she had called for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine war.
Wagenknecht was flanked by three other politicians from the socialist Left Party — Amira Mohamed Ali, Lukas Schön, and Christian Leye — all of whom had resigned from the party in the morning to join the new association. The Left Party has already said it would expel politicians who joined the new group.
The parliamentary group leader of the Left Party, Dietmar Bartsch, later confirmed that 10 of its 38 members of parliament have left the party on Monday.
The Wagenknecht phenomenon — A threat to the far-right
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 Left Party, Wagenknecht has grown into a source of bitterness among party colleagues, who have grown tired of the 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.
Speculation had been mounting for months that Wagenknecht may start her own political party, and survey results have been in her favor. An opinion poll released on Monday 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. In eastern Germany, the figure was as high as 32%. The survey also found that supporters of the Left Party and the AfD were most open to voting for her.
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 criticized her own party leadership for pandering to what she calls "lifestyle leftists," whose policies of inclusion for marginalized communities, she argues, were themselves marginalizing the Left Party's core voters, especially the working classes in eastern Germany.
Wagenknecht has grown particularly popular in eastern Germany, and a Thuringia poll by the Insa institute in July found that Wagenknecht's as yet non-existent party could potentially win an election in her home state — with 25% of the vote, three points ahead of the AfD. 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 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 chimes in with the work of Sarah Wagner, a postdoctoral researcher in political science at Mannheim University who has studied Wagenknecht's rise. Her popularity, Wagner 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?
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 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 support 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.
Wagenknecht's future — a break from her past
Wagenknecht is likely to take a splinter group of the Left Party's parliamentarians with her — a move that may leave the party to which she owes her political career in ruins.
It is 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), the communist party that governed East Germany.
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 success or failure.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
This article was first published on August 11, 2023. It was updated on October 23, 2023 to reflect the latest developments on Sahra Wagenknecht's plans to form a new party.
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