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New populist party shakes up German political establishment

January 8, 2024

Sahra Wagenknecht has launched her new party: It is restrictive on immigration, pro Russia and champions left-wing social policies. The 2024 European elections will be the first test for the "Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance."

Left to right: Fabio de Masi, Amira Mohamed Ali, Sahra Wagenknecht, Shervin Haghsheno and Thomas Geisel at the presentation of the new party
Sahra Wagenknecht (m) presented her new 'Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance'Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In her youth, Sahra Wagenknecht was a communist. She grew up in the city of Jena during East Germany's socialist GDR dictatorship and after reunification went on to shape the image of what evolved as the Left Party. She left that party in October 2023 along with several of her supporters and has now founded her party "Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance — Reason and Fairness." 

Germany's entire left-wing party spectrum is facing a downward trend and grappling to redefine itself.

This applies especially to the opposition Left Party, which is struggling not to fall below the 5% threshold for representation in parliament, but also to the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the environmentalist Greens, who form the current federal government together with the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Left Party dissolves parliamentary group after defections

In the first survey of 2024 conducted by pollster Infratest Dimap, the Left Party, SPD and Greens together garnered only 31% support, which put them on a par with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union CSU. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), meanwhile, has seen its support double since the last general election in 2021 to reach 22%.

According to political scientist Werner Patzelt, the main reason for the decline of left-wing parties is that they are perceived not to care enough about the so-called ordinary people. This part of the population, says Patzelt, is struggling at a time of price hikes and lack of affordable housing and has little to do with "woke," left-wing ideas championed by left-wing parties.

The term "woke" has entered the German political jargon to describe those who claim a keen awareness of social justice and fight racism. Patzelt says these issues are primarily addressed by the left-wing academic elite. And if this does not change, Patzelt warns, the left should not be surprised "if ordinary people tend to pin their hopes on the right."

Anti-immigration rhetoric

Sahra Wagenknecht's new party, however, is not openly hostile towards immigrants. "Immigration and the coexistence of different cultures can be an enrichment," reads her political platform, but it continues: "However, this only applies as long as the influx remains limited to a level that does not overburden our country and its infrastructure and as long as integration is actively promoted and successful."

Wagenknecht considers Germany's long-standing culture of welcoming refugees, initiated in 2015 by then Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), to be "highly problematic." Not because these people do not deserve a better life, she emphasizes. "But because our country is simply overburdened as a result."

Wagenknecht's party's manifesto contains skeptical and cautionary words about migration: "The price for increased competition for affordable housing, low-wage jobs and failed integration is not primarily paid by those who are well off." 

Such sentiments remind political scientist Werner Patzelt of the Querfront — a term originating in the Weimar Republic before the far-right nationalists took over: Back then there were attempts at cooperation between the far-right and far-left to unite forces in an effort to gain power.

The SPD and Greens have now also made a U-turn on migration policy and want to limit irregular immigration to Germany. At the same time, they are planning cuts in economic and social policy. "Reality is being forced upon these parties," says Patzelt.

He suggests that the SPD and the Greens should learn from governments in Denmark and Sweden. There, it has paid off for social democrats to adopt a restrictive migration policy.

Germany's left-wing parties, he believes, should focus on "the little people whose familiar living environments are endangered by globalization and the migration that accompanies globalization, among other things."

The Left Party has strongly committed itself to a policy of open borders. This is symbolized by its lead candidate for the upcoming European Parliament elections, Carola Rackete, a climate and human rights activist who became prominent for her role in helping refugees in distress at sea. Her nomination is not yet paying off in the polls.

Far-left splinter parties such as Germany's communist party DKP play no role in the political debate. The DKP, founded in 1968 in the Federal Republic of Germany, has less than 3,000 members whose average age is 60.

All parties that position themselves on the left of Germany's political spectrum are likely to face an uphill battle in elections for the European Parliament in June 2024 and elections in three eastern German states in September.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.