New German party defies conventional labels

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Welcome back. Germany is to have a new political party — and it will be unusual in two respects. First, it takes its name from its founder, Sahra Wagenknecht. In a country famous since 1945 for its generally cautious, unflamboyant brand of politics, that makes it stand out.

Second, the party defies conventional categories by combining some traditional leftwing policies with an overt appeal to hard-right voters. What are the prospects for the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance — for Reason and Justice (BSW), which will be officially launched in January? I’m at [email protected].

First, here are the results of last week’s poll. Asked if the EU can become a true geopolitical power, 53 per cent said no, 28 per cent said yes and 19 per cent were on the fence. Thanks for voting!

What’s in a name?

To kick off, a quick survey of European political parties named after individuals. Is this a formula that brings electoral success?

Sebastian Kurz, a Wunderkind conservative Austrian politician, won his country’s 2017 elections after relabelling his party the “Sebastian Kurz List — the new People’s party”. But he fell from power in 2021 and is now embroiled in cases of alleged corruption and lying to parliament — accusations he denies.

At the start of this century, the populist Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn also named a party after himself. Days before national elections in 2002, Fortuyn was assassinated. His party came second in that vote but, deprived of its founder, soon faded into irrelevance.

In eastern Europe, a Bulgarian party led by former king Simeon II and named after himself stormed to electoral victory in 2001. Simeon served as prime minister for four years, but by the end of the decade the party’s moment in the sun was over.

In other words, European parties named after prominent personalities can make an impact, but it doesn’t seem to last. Will it be different in Germany?

Joachim Käppner, writing for the Süddeutsche Zeitung (here in German), observes: “Creating political parties tailor-made for one person is a strategy that has little tradition in the Federal Republic — and has so far been unsuccessful.”

Judge Merciless comes a cropper

As Käppner points out, Wagenknecht isn’t the first German politician to name a party after herself. Anyone remember the short, turbulent political career of a judge named Ronald Schill in the northern city-state of Hamburg? Schill earned such notoriety for his draconian sentences that he was known as Richter Gnadenlos, or Judge Merciless.

In 2000 Schill formed a rightwing party, named after himself, which did so well in local elections the following year that he was catapulted into power as Hamburg’s deputy mayor and interior minister.

But he caused such controversy that he was removed from office. He later emigrated to Latin America, popping up occasionally on little-watched German reality shows (known in German as “Trash-TV”).

Who is Sahra Wagenknecht?

Wagenknecht, 54, is not an oddball like Schill, but she is certainly a distinctive public figure.

Brought up in the German Democratic Republic, or former East Germany, she was an orthodox communist in her youth. On the night the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, she stayed at home reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the FT’s Guy Chazan wrote in a wonderful 2017 profile.

Wagenknecht is half-Iranian and the wife of Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democratic party candidate for chancellor (1990) and finance minister (1998-1999). Lafontaine’s radical leftwing views led him to abandon the SPD and join Die Linke, a party with roots in East German communism of which Wagenknecht herself became a leader.

BSW isn’t Wagenknecht’s first attempt at forming a new political movement. As the FT’s Frederick Studemann wrote in 2018, she responded to a widespread mood in Germany of Politikverdrossenheit (“being fed up with politics”) by setting up a movement called Aufstehen (“stand up”). But that flopped.

Wagenknecht has stayed in the public eye with regular appearances on TV talk shows and by writing bestselling books such as Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”), an attack on trendy leftwingers who, in her view, put identity politics ahead of defending the working class.

She’s sometimes compared with Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist revolutionary who was murdered by extreme-right paramilitaries in the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin.

Not left or right but anti-mainstream

What do Wagenknecht and her party stand for? Marcus Colla, writing for the Lowy Institute, sums it up well:

In addition to the conventional-left emphases on wages, pensions, infrastructure and education, Wagenknecht’s agenda combines a handful of radical left-populist essentials (attacks on Nato and big corporations, some nostalgia for the German Democratic Republic) with some classic motifs of the right (tough restrictions on migration, a return to cheap gas and nuclear energy, and routine attacks on “cancel culture” and “identity politics”).

Throw into the mix a degree of Euroscepticism, hard criticism of Covid lockdowns, demands to end sanctions against Russia and weapons exports to Ukraine, and a rhetoric that rails against the disconnection of the Berlin political class from “ordinary people”, and you have an outlook that is more defined by its anti-mainstream impulse than by any “left” or “right” orientation.

‘Nutcases and extremists’

Wolfgang Münchau, writing in the New Statesman, warns us not to underestimate the new party:

I disagree with virtually of Wagenknecht’s policies, but I take her seriously because she is well prepared, has a clear agenda and a team in place . . . This is not a bunch of old Trots fighting their last political battle.

Mathieu von Rohr, a journalist with Der Spiegel magazine, adds:

There could be a gap in the market for her mix of anti-Americanism, Putin apologism, socialism [and] migration scepticism as well as openness to conspiracy theories.

However, Wagenknecht herself seems to anticipate trouble ahead. In a rather startling comment on her new party’s prospects (here in German), she said: “It’s a mammoth task to keep out nutcases and extremists.”

Go east, young party

If Wagenknecht’s party is going to get anywhere, it will probably do so by stealing votes first and foremost from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, and by focusing its efforts on eastern Germany, where AfD is strongest.

According to a poll last month by the Civey research institute, some 20 per cent of Germans could imagine voting for a Wagenknecht-led party — but the figure rises to 32 per cent in the east, and drops to 17 per cent in the west.

In this analysis of Wagenknecht’s prospects in the Politische Vierteljahresschrift, a political science journal, Sarah Wagner, Constantin Wurthmann and Jan Philipp Thomeczeck say their research shows that she is attractive to “individuals who are more socioculturally rightwing, critical of migration and dissatisfied with democracy”.

That fits the profile of AfD voters in the east. And Wagenknecht’s denunciation of “blind, haphazard eco-activism” may play particularly well in eastern Germany, but perhaps with some western voters, too.

The popularity of the ruling three-party coalition of the SPD, Greens and liberal Free Democrats has suffered nationwide from a political and public backlash against its initially ambitious climate change policies.

Implications for German party politics

Taking the long view, I am struck by the way that BSW’s launch will be the latest illustration of the fragmentation of Germany’s party political landscape.

Once upon a time, West German politics was exceptionally stable, characterised by two big parties — the Christian Democrats (and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) and the SPD — plus one smaller party, the FDP. Then came the Greens and, after Germany’s reunification in 1900, Die Linke, AfD and now BSW.

So a three-party system is turning into a seven-party system. All seven parties are capable of gaining seats in state assemblies as well as in the Bundestag after the next national elections due in 2025.

Katja Hoyer, writing for UnHerd, comments:

With many small parties distributing the vote between them, it will be increasingly difficult to form coalitions, especially while keeping the AfD out of them.

She may well be right, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first tests for Wagenknecht will be next year’s European parliament elections, as well as three votes in the eastern German states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia.

If her party does well in these elections, the pressure on Germany’s ruling coalition, already rising, will become very intense indeed.

More on this topic

Is the firewall still standing? — A commentary by Luisa Latella for the American-German Institute on mainstream parties’ attitudes to AfD

Tony’s picks of the week

  • The support for Israel voiced by Marine Le Pen and her French far-right party forms a striking contrast to the views of her father, once the movement’s leader, and is part of a wider strategy to detoxify France’s radical right, the FT’s Leila Abboud reports from Paris

  • Antisemitic disturbances in Russia’s mainly Muslim north Caucasus region have exposed the risks posed by President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to make political hay out of the Israel-Hamas war, Robert Coalson writes for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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