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31 October 2023

Watch out for Sahra Wagenknecht

We often, and wrongly, associate populism with the far right. Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schröder were populists of the centre. As of this week, Germany has a new populist party - of the far left. 

This party is led by Sahra Wagenknecht, a former leader of the Left Party, who quit and has now created her own rival political movement. What is unusual for German politics is that this movement - a precursor to a future party - carries her name. 

Wagenknecht wants to rebuild the dying old Left in her own image. She took 9 of the party's 38 MPs with her. She says she wants to revert to the old industrial model that has served Germany so well and reopen the pipelines that used to carry cheap Russian gas to Germany. She opposes economic sanctions and weapons deliveries to Ukraine. She wants to cap immigration, the issue of greatest disagreement with the Left Party. 

Interesting, too, that she is positioning herself in opposition to what she calls the political representatives of the Metropolitan elites. Familiar as this phrase may sound, it is unusual to hear it from the left.

A first poll this week has shown that around 12% of Germans would support her - about the same level as the Greens. Her support is much stronger in eastern Germany, precisely because of her position in favour of ending economic sanctions against Russia. She is also among the five most popular politicians in Germany - ahead of Olaf Scholz and most members of his government. 

Wagenknecht has often been compared to Rosa Luxemburg, co-founder of the German communist party, murdered in 1919, and an iconic figure of the German left. Wagenknecht, who grew up in east Germany, always remained a communist all the way through unification. In the 1990s, she completed a PhD in economics, and in 2014 became co-leader of the Left Party's parliamentary group. She is married to Oskar Lafontaine, who has the dubious distinction of having been a leader of both the SPD and later the Left Party, falling out with both of them during his long career. Lafontaine himself is not part of this new party, at least not in any official role at this point. There is in general not much glamour in German politics - but Wagenknecht and Lafontaine come as close as it gets. 

I disagree with virtually all of her policies, but I take her seriously because she is well prepared, she has a clear agenda, and a team in place. She landed a coup by getting Ralph Suikat, a millionaire businessman and social investor to join her. This is not a bunch of old Trots fighting their last political battle.

Wagenknecht's labelling of Olaf Scholz' government as the most incompetent government in the history of the federal republic resonates with a lot of people. Polls show that the coalition is only supported by a third of the electorate. The alienation is particularly strong in eastern Germany. Scholz runs a three-party coalition - between the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals. It is a government with a strong western bent. Both of the smaller parties have their strongholds in the west. Scholz' sudden U-turn on German relations with Russia after Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine left many east Germans shocked. The Green agenda, especially the phase-out of nuclear energy and domestic gas heaters, does not have the same traction in the east as it does in the west. Nor does the language of political correctness. There is no formal language barrier between east and west. But as somebody whose family stems from both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain, I can testify to an extraordinary capacity of both sides not to understand each other.

Wagenknecht's party will probably take some votes away from the AfD. The first snap poll showed a small but visible effect. But it would be wrong to think of the new party in terms of a zero-sum game. There are Social Democratic voters who, if only for historic reasons, would never vote for a party of the far right even if they agree with their policies. She is particularly supportive of old industries. 

Her foreign policies are incoherent. She calls for an end to weapons deliveries to Ukraine in the name of peace, but never explains how that peace would come about beyond the notion that it would somehow happen through negotiations. Nor is it realistic to reopen the pipelines if only because they are mostly destroyed. They would have to be rebuilt. I cannot see this happening.

While her policies have no chance of being enacted, they work politically for her. The Ukraine war and mass immigration from Ukraine are linked political issues. They will keep on giving. I would expect Ukraine's western allies at one point to exert pressure on Volodymr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, to cut a deal with Vladimir Putin. Putin may want to wait until the US elections next year. It could get potentially quite messy as we are approaching the German elections in 2025. The longer the war goes on, the better for her and her movement. 

The stronger the left and the right become, the greater the temptation by the parties of the centre to form mega-coalitions among each other. This, in turn, plays further into the hands of the extremists. There is no logical reason to think that opposition to centrist consensus has to come from the right. Germany, with its dying industrial base and post-Soviet romanticism still alive in the east, is a country ideally suited for the populism of the left. 

The column first appeared in the New Statesman on October 26.

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