November 16, 2023 - 1:05pm

There was a time when German politics had a reputation for being sensible, even boring. More recently, however, the country’s volatile rebalancing of the political spectrum has attracted a great deal of attention. This time, it’s the far-Left party Die Linke in the limelight. Following the resignation of its most prominent figure Sahra Wagenknecht, the party might be about to implode, creating a political vacuum that may well end up fanning the flames of the AfD.

Sahra Wagenknecht announced last month that she was leaving Die Linke to form her own party, which is expected to follow a more Left-nationalist course. Many German centrists are hoping Wagenknecht could draw votes from the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), acting as an “alternative to the Alternative for Germany”. But with her old party disintegrating, the opposite may be the case.

When Wagenknecht left, nine of her colleagues followed, leaving the party with only 28 MPs, not enough to form an official faction in the Bundestag. As a consequence, Die Linke announced earlier this week that it will dissolve the group, which means losing state funding and rights in the parliamentary process. 

While faction leader Dietmar Bartsch was trying to put on a brave face, arguing that “the liquidation of the faction is definitely not the end of Die Linke,” it’s hard to see the party come back from this. It had already struggled with infighting, losing nearly half its electoral support between the general elections of 2017 and 2021 and leaving it with only 4.9% of the vote. Without national relevance and faced with direct competition from Wagenknecht, it might prove difficult to maintain the infrastructure for local and state-level elections.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the implosion of the far-Left party could benefit the far-Right. Die Linke has more support in eastern regions where it competes with the AfD for the anti-establishment vote. As the successor to East Germany’s ruling party, it was often able to pick up around a quarter of the votes in eastern states in the 1990s, when it was called the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), entering coalitions, including in Berlin, with the Social Democrats. While it lost some of its traction when it merged with a party from the former western areas to form Die Linke, it continues to receive support in the east. The current leader of the state of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, is from the party.

Losing a party that is seen by some to look after the concerns of eastern Germany leaves a void for the AfD, which has already been able to capitalise by targeting disgruntled voters in the region, using slogans such as “The East Rises Up”. 

Local elections are scheduled in three eastern states next year: Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg. In all three, the AfD is currently set to win but not outright, making it possible to form coalitions without it. The collapse of Die Linke, however, may change this. 

Take Thuringia, where the polls currently predict 34% support for the AfD and 20% for Die Linke. If Die Linke evaporates, their voters might stay at home, vote for the Social Democrats or plump for the AfD, potentially making it mathematically impossible for the other parties to form a coalition without the hard Right. 

If the AfD is included in Thuringia, it will, as the strongest party, demand to have its leader run the state as Minister President. That would be Björn Höcke, who has links to neo-Nazis and who was charged earlier this year for using a slogan of Hitler’s stormtroopers. He was previously leader of the Der Flügel faction of the AfD, which the German security service judged to be “Right-wing extremist”.

It was in Thuringia where the Nazi Party gained its first government positions in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power as chancellor. Germany’s mainstream parties must take the falling apart of Die Linke seriously, for the unintended consequences may be significant.

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