January 16, 2024 - 1:15pm


I set off this week from London to Berlin feeling apprehensive about what might await me in the German capital. Friends and family had warned that the public mood there had reached a dangerous tipping point. There was no telling if I’d even make it out of the airport as thousands of tractors brought the city to a standstill on Monday — the culmination of weeks of farmers’ protests. Railway workers and doctors have been on strike, and yesterday it was reported that Germany was the worst-performing major economy last year.

There is much hand-wringing in the corridors of power about all this upheaval, but nobody seems to have any idea what to do about it. Trust in the government has plummeted to unprecedented depths, with a new survey suggesting that only 17% of voters are still content with its progress. Now, early polls are suggesting that the party officially founded this month by dark horse Left-winger Sahra Wagenknecht has the potential to shake up German politics.

Published last week, the first representative survey including Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) — so distinct are her politics, it’s no surprise that the party bears her name — as an option suggests that it would get 14% of the vote. That’s on a par with chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD and more than his coalition partners the Greens (12%) and the Free Liberals, who wouldn’t currently meet the required 5% hurdle to get into parliament. This result would make BSW the third-strongest party after the centre-right Christian Democrats (27%) and the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, 18%). 

Having previously espoused communist ideas, Wagenknecht’s convictions have now evolved into something she calls “Left-wing conservatism”. She left her party Die Linke (“The Left”) last year in order to form her own, and BSW was founded by 44 members last week on a four-point programme consisting of “economic common sense”, “social justice”, “peace” and “freedom”. 

While the creators of the new survey point out that the results may be slanted in favour of BSW because the wording of the question directly mentioned the new party, it would be a mistake to underestimate Wagenknecht. For one thing, her extensive personal support ensured that when she left Die Linke, nine other MPs followed suit. The party has all but imploded without her. 

More importantly, Wagenknecht offers an attractive package for those who feel the Left-liberal policies of successive German governments aren’t working for them but who aren’t easily reconciled with the Right-wing policies of the AfD. BSW marries classic trade-unionist policies with a bullish “anti-woke” stance and conservative positions on immigration. When it comes to foreign policy, Wagenknecht argues that her Russia-sympathetic and anti-Nato outlook will address the energy crisis and bring peace. She also wants a smaller German military that stays out of international conflict.

It is as yet unclear how appealing this eclectic mix of policies will be to German voters once the dust has settled on the party’s foundation, and whether Wagenknecht will be able to establish a functioning local infrastructure. The sequence of upcoming elections will certainly provide an ideal runway for her party to take flight. BSW will first appear on the ballot paper for European elections in June, where the threshold to gain mandates is comparatively low. In the autumn, it will contest elections for the local parliaments of three of Germany’s eastern states, where discontent is high and Wagenknecht maintains her core support. 

With a new Left-wing party joining the clamour for change, the political spectrum has splintered further just as anger continues to spill onto the streets and into the voting booths. Coalitions will become awkward to build and the country even more difficult to run amid overlapping crises. Whatever Wagenknecht’s chances of electoral success, she is set to contribute to making 2024 a real stress test for modern German democracy.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.