We often, and wrongly, associate populism with the far right. But Silvio Berlusconi and Gerhard Schröder were populists of the centre. As of this week, Germany has a new populist party – of the far left.
This party is led by Sahra Wagenknecht, a former leader of Die Linke, or the Left Party, who quit and has now created her own rival political movement. What is unusual for German politics is that this movement – a precursor to a future party – carries her name.
Wagenknecht wants to rebuild the old, dying left in her own image. She took nine of the party’s 38 MPs with her. She says she wants to revert to the old industrial model that has served Germany so well and reopen the pipelines that formerly carried cheap Russian gas to Germany. She opposes economic sanctions and weapons deliveries to Ukraine. She wants to cap immigration, the issue of greatest disagreement with the Left Party. She positions herself in opposition to what she calls the political representatives of the liberal metropolitan elites. Familiar as this phrase may sound, it is unusual to hear it from the left in Germany.
The first poll to include her new formation showed that around 12 per cent of Germans would support her – about the same level as the Greens. Wagenknecht’s support is much stronger in the east, because she is in favour of ending economic sanctions against Russia. She is also among the five most popular politicians in Germany – ahead of Olaf Scholz and most members of his government.
Wagenknecht has been compared to Rosa Luxemburg, co-founder of the German Communist Party, murdered in the Spartacist Revolution of 1919. Wagenknecht, who grew up in East Germany, remained a communist all the way through unification. In the 1990s, she completed a PhD in economics, and in 2015 became co-leader of the Left Party’s parliamentary group. She is married to Oskar Lafontaine, who has the dubious distinction of having been a leader of both the Social Democrats and later the Left Party, falling out with both of them during his long career. Lafontaine currently has no role in the new party, at least not officially. There is not much glamour in German politics, but Wagenknecht and Lafontaine come as close as it gets.
I disagree with virtually all of Wagenknecht’s policies, but I take her seriously because she is well prepared, has a clear agenda, and a team in place. She landed a coup in getting Ralph Suikat, a millionaire businessman and social investor, to join her. This is not a bunch of old Trots fighting their last political battle.
Wagenknecht’s labelling of Olaf Scholz’s government as the most incompetent in the history of the federal republic resonates with a lot of people. Polls show that the three-party coalition, which is made up of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the free-market Liberals, is supported by only a third of the electorate. The alienation is particularly strong in eastern Germany. It is a government with a strong western bent. Scholz’s sudden U-turn on Germany’s relations with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine left many east Germans shocked. The Green agenda, especially the phase-out of nuclear energy and domestic gas heaters, does not have the same traction in the east as it does in the west. Nor does the language of political correctness. There is no formal language barrier between east and west. But as somebody whose family comes from both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain, I can testify to an extraordinary capacity on both sides not to understand the other.
Wagenknecht will probably take some votes away from the hard right Alternative for Germany. But it would be wrong to think of the new party in terms of a zero-sum game. There are Social Democrat voters who, if only for historic reasons, would never vote for a party of the far right even if they agree with their policies. And Wagenknecht is particularly supportive of old industries.
Her foreign policies are incoherent, however. She calls for an end to weapons deliveries to Ukraine in the name of peace, but never explains how that peace would come about beyond the notion that it would somehow happen through negotiations. Nor is it realistic to reopen the pipelines if only because they are mostly destroyed.
The Wagenknecht phenomenon is not unique to Germany, of course. Ideas of the left and the right commingle elsewhere in Europe and the US. Marine Le Pen combines elements of French nationalism and socialism. There was an element of this in the Brexit campaign when the left vote split between the metropolitan cities and industrial towns. The so-called American New Right also combines pro-worker and anti-free market positions. Typecasting movements such as Sahra Wagenknecht’s as left or right is pointless. This is how we end up underestimating them.
The stronger the left and the right become, the greater the temptation by the parties of the centre to form mega-coalitions among each other, as happens in Germany. This, in turn, plays further into the hands of the extremists. There is no logical reason to think that opposition to the centrist consensus has to come from the right. Germany, with its dying industrial base and post-Soviet romanticism still alive in the east, is a country ideally suited for the populism of the left.
[See also: The return of the two Germanys]
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War