“The future of The Left is a future without Sahra Wagenknecht.” Despite the rapid rise of the Right-wing party AfD in Germany, which secured 18% of the vote in this weekend’s Hessian election, the Leftist party Die Linke wants nothing to do with one of Germany’s most popular politicians. While roughly 20% of Germans would consider supporting a party with Wagenknecht in charge, the leaders of her current party, Die Linke, have demanded that she resign her seat in the Bundestag, the German parliament.
Admittedly, Wagenknecht hasn’t gone out of her way to make friends. In her 2021 book Die Selbstgerechten (The Self-Righteous), she condemned the rise of a so-called “lifestyle Left” that was made up of “the academic middle class, software programmers, and marketing experts” whose obsessions with political correctness, climate change, and unregulated immigration threatened to alienate Die Linke’s supporters in the working class and among the unemployed. The attack was taken badly by her comrades, who saw the book as a declaration of “literal war against her own party” and “the marginalised”.
But perhaps Wagenknecht doesn’t need their support. For months now, rumours have been circulating in the German press that she is planning to found her own party before the end of the year. The tabloid Bild claims to have confirmed that the launch of the new party is imminent, while one Wagenknecht ally, the political scientist Ulrike Guérot, told the news magazine Cicero in August that she had been offered to run on the new party’s ticket for next year’s elections to the EU parliament. If Wagenknecht goes ahead with her plan, the German political landscape might realign in unprecedented ways, both condemning Die Linke to oblivion and possibly slowing the rapid rise of the AfD.
Born in 1969 to a German mother and an Iranian immigrant father in the former GDR, 54-year-old Wagenknecht was associated with the Stalinist party faction “Kommunistische Plattform” until 2010 when she left the group. Since then, she has noticeably moderated her image, dressing in conservative pantsuits, wearing her hair tightly pinned up — and approvingly quoting Roger Scruton’s “philosophy of belonging”, which she pits against the “individualism and cosmopolitanism” of the “lifestyle Left”.
Still, she continues to appeal to popular anti-capitalist sentiments. Her worldview, which she first set out in her 2011 book Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (Freedom over Capitalism), sees the sovereign nation-state as the essential bulwark against what she calls a “rule-less, globalised capitalism”. National welfare systems exist, she writes in Die Selbstgerechten, “to protect domestic workers and domestic consumers” (the italics are hers). German Leftists, still deeply scarred by the country’s national socialist past, see such protectionist appeals to national interests as little more than far-Right dog whistles.
Yet to many, she is a bold tribune of the people. In her YouTube show, she presents herself, somewhat awkwardly, as a news anchor commenting on the latest news in simple German. She regularly advocates views that are commonly associated with the German Right, whether it be attacks on Covid vaccine mandates or the Biden administration, which she accuses of having sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines last year. A fierce critic of Germany’s membership of Nato, which she blames for having provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she demanded that the German federal government publicly reveal everything it knows about who blew up Nord Stream. But the Scholz administration responded enigmatically that “in the interest of the welfare of the state” the findings needed to be kept secret.
Predictably enough, Wagenknecht has been condemned as “Vladimir Putin’s voice in Germany”, especially after she helped initiate the Manifest für Frieden (Manifesto for Peace) petition in February that demanded an end to German weapons deliveries to Ukraine and a diplomatic settlement of the war. This ultimately triggered a falling out with her party: after she refused to condemn the support of the manifesto by Right-wing activists, Die Linke leadership denied its endorsement of the peace initiative.
Yet her actions drew praise from surprising corners. Björn Höcke, an influential voice of the AfD and an advocate for Russo-German rapprochement, suggested that Wagenknecht should join his party. His proposal, however, was clearly tongue-in-cheek — the AfD leadership is aware of the dangers that a Wagenknecht party would pose to its unprecedented rise in national polls. While the AfD would be the second strongest party in the Bundestag if elections were held today, a new Wagenknecht party might slice off as much as a third of its support. “We’ll need to regard a Wagenknecht party not as an ally but as a competitor,” Höcke said recently, adding that a Wagenknecht party would more likely provide “opposition within the ruling cartel than opposition to the cartel”.
Neither side is keen on an alliance. Wagenknecht has regularly condemned the AfD as beyond the pale of acceptability and excluded any collaboration with it, despite overlapping on crucial issues such as immigration, Nato membership, and the reopening of the Nord Stream pipelines. “To me, any cooperation with the AfD is absolutely unacceptable”, said Amira Mohamed Ali, co-chair of Die Linke faction in the Bundestag and one of Wagenknecht’s closest allies who would most likely follow her into a new party. “The AfD is a party which in parts holds extreme Right-wing views… Many politicians in the AfD do not clearly distance themselves from the National Socialist era and its rhetoric.”
Such a view is common in German political discourse. The oppositional Christian Democrats (CDU), who were in power for most of the history of the post-war Federal Republic, most recently under the 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel, have self-imposed a so-called “Brandmauer” (firewall) that mandates a total prohibition on any collaboration with the AfD. The CDU party chair Friedrich Merz recently had to reaffirm his commitment to the firewall after causing an uproar when he told the public broadcaster ZDF that the party would have to be “pragmatic” at the local level if CDU council members were confronted with resolutions put forth by AfD politicians. His point was that if AfD members of a small-town council suggested repaving a road, the CDU faction shouldn’t reflexively oppose the measure.
Elsewhere, this firewall rhetoric has boxed the CDU into a corner. Recently, the party proposed a bill in the state parliament of Thuringia to cut taxes. But after the AfD faction voted in support of the bill, embarrassed handwringing ensued. Did the CDU inadvertently violate its own firewall by taking a position with which the AfD agrees? Should it withdraw proposals if it becomes clear that the AfD might endorse them? Some prominent CDU members indeed seem to believe so.
In this, the CDU has found an unlikely sympathiser in Amira Mohamed Ali. “What should they have done?” she told German media. “Refuse to propose a motion or withdraw it after the wrong ones voted for it? I find that rather absurd.”
Might this present an opportunity for a future party led by Wagenknecht? While the AfD and a potential Wagenknecht party would likely denounce each other in public and promise no formal collaboration, on key issues of the day — such as the Ukraine war or energy policy — they could vote in line. And even though the AfD might earn smaller vote shares with Wagenknecht as a competitor, the two parties together may still earn a larger combined vote share than the AfD does by itself. This would allow them to form subtle coalitions on specific issues.
The status quo, by contrast, limits Wagenknecht’s reach because in national polls Die Linke is stagnating around the 5% mark that parties need to cross in order to gain seats in the Bundestag. In Sunday’s elections for the state parliaments of Hesse and Bavaria, the party incurred heavy losses and failed to win seats in either parliament — in Hesse, Die Linke earned only half as many votes as in the last elections five years ago. Prominent Linke politicians blame it all on Wagenknecht. “It is the stated goal of Wagenknecht and her associates to destroy Die Linke,” tweeted the Bundestag member Caren Lay.
But Wagenknecht could still lose her nerve. After all, this would not be her first time trying to launch a novel political organisation. In 2018, she helped to form an extra-parliamentary movement named Aufstehen (“Rise Up”), which she modelled after the British Momentum campaign of Jeremy Corbyn supporters, to provide grassroots support for her Left-wing goals. Yet the project quickly fizzled out after Wagenknecht complained that she felt “burned out” and withdrew from leadership.
If she proceeds, Wagenknecht will have the crucial support of Klaus Ernst. The former union executive helped to lead a sizable chunk of members out of the Social Democratic Party in 2005 to protest the party’s cuts to social welfare during the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder. He then helped to form the Left-wing social-democratic party WASG, which in 2007 merged with the Party of Democratic Socialism to become today’s Linke. Ernst, who is discontented with Die Linke’s support for “genderism” and apocalyptic climate activism, recently told Cicero that if Wagenknecht were to launch such a party, “it would really be a realistic option for me to participate”.
The combined vote share of Germany’s Nato-supporting mainstream parties is ever-shrinking as more and more Germans, especially in the East, feel alienated from Berlin and seek to punish their leaders by voting for disruptive populist forces. So far, the AfD has fought a lonely fight in total rejection of the status quo. If Wagenknecht starts to address many of the AfD’s complaints against Germany’s energy or foreign policy as well, the Right-wing populists may not be lonely for long.