With the far right AfD and adjacent Neo-Nazis on the march, Germany’s progressive side of politics seems to enjoy breaking itself into ever smaller pieces. Next to the once mighty social-democratic SPD, the environmentalist Greens, and the traditional socialists of Die Linke, Germany’s newest mini-party is the “one-woman show” Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht, founded on 8 January 2024 by East-German born (Jena, 1969) Wagenknecht, with forty-four other members who previously belonged to the Die Linke.
Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), claims that people have “lost faith in politics and no longer feel represented by any of the existing parties,” including Die Linke. To emphasize their independence, Wagenknecht and nine other federal MPs all resigned from Die Linke.
BSW will run for the 2024 European Elections and plan to run candidates in the upcoming state elections in three East German states: Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia.
BSW’s key people are – apart from Wagenkneccht – Amira Mohamed Ali, Christian Leye, Lukas Schön, and Ralph Suikat.
BSW added the non-descriptive vague claim “reason and justice” as a kind of codicil to its name, probably to entice some of the 450 new members who were admitted in the first weeks of 2024.
Meanwhile, because, strangely enough, if you were elected as a member of one party and then decide to leave that party, you can still remain a member of parliament, so BSW will continue working as a group inside Germany’s federal parliament.
Welcome to the 21st century: The BSW party program and political strategy was outsourced to an expert panel. Using the TikTok, Instagram and YouTube techniques of “influencers”, BSW promotes a kind of personality cult around Sahra Wagenknecht.
BSW’s founding congress in the former Kosmos Cinema in East Berlin did little to dispel this impression. On stage, Wagenknecht was accompanied by her husband, long-time respected politician and former finance minister of Germany Oskar Lafontaine.
Looked at from a different perspective, BSW can be regarded as a family project, plus a small circle of supporters, and is tailored to fit Sahra. She and Lafontaine are a high-profile power couple, and now, perhaps because of his age (80), the political stage belongs to his telegenic wife Sahra Wagenknecht.
The intellectual would-like-to-be Doppelgänger of Rosa Luxemburg, Wagenknecht cultivates a kind of philosophical dialectic in her recently acclaimed speech when arguing, for example, against the environmentalist Greens and advocating a return to unlimited burning of oil and gas in combustion engine automobiles.
Most importantly, Wagenknecht likes to step over the line between informed debate and outright populism, which is spiced up with some semi-philosophical musings. She is the closest thing to left-wing populism that has appeared on the political scene in a long time.
Wagenknecht paints Germany’s Greens as aloof and arrogant, out of touch with “Otto Normalverbraucher” (the average consumer, aka average Joe). Things really get heated when Wagenknecht talks about the war in Ukraine. On that topic she calls for an immediate end to sanctions against Russia and a stop to supplying weapons for Ukraine.
She uses a carefully constructed moniker to ridicule staunchly neoliberal FDP politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, attaching to her the fantasy surname Strack-Rheinmetall to amplify her as a symbolic family member benefitting from an arms-supplying government policy.
Meanwhile, the entry of Wagenknecht’s left-populist BSW into politics culminates a seemingly never-ending “separation drama” between Die Linke and the BSW. Many people wonder if BSW is “a train going nowhere?” Or is Wagenknecht no more than a left-wing partner engaging in political infidelity?
Die Linke have slammed the door shut behind her and are trying to move on, so there will be no cozy home to return to for Wagenknecht.
The Linke-BSW divorce actually has its roots back in 2016 with the debate about asylum-seekers in Germany, in which Wagenknecht positioned herself against migration while Die Linke remains pro-asylum. By 2018, it became clear that there were irreconcilable differences between them on refugees.
Public polling supported an anti-migration Sahra Wagenknecht party. By summer 2021, the BSW-Linke separation got to the home stretch when Wagenknecht published her book The Self-Righteous.
In the book Wagenknecht argued for what she calls “left liberalism” (read: left-populism). Wagenknecht even accused Die Linke of no longer being interested in social issue questions like equality.
By March 2023, Wagenknecht announced that she would not run as a candidate for Die Linke in the next federal election. In September 2023, Wagenknecht presented the first part of what was to become the party program for BSW.
After that, she repeatedly announced that she would found a new party. It surprised nobody. There was political pressure from Die Linke to either put up or shut up.
The creation of BSW was clearly no division movement coming from inside Die Linke. The proof is that in the East-German state of Saxony, all members of parliament – federal, state, and EU – jointly declared that they would remain members of Die Linke.
At the same time many followers of Wagenknecht started to leave Die Linke to organize themselves in the “Was-Tun” network and the “Karl Liebknecht circles”. Eventually, separation became inevitable. There are three main reason for the Wagenknecht/BSW divorce:
- Party Politics: All the other parties understand that BSW seeks to take voters away from the Neo-Nazi AfD based on its anti-migration stance;
- War and Peace: there is also a geopolitical objective which concerns BSW’s attitude towards Russia and its invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. Finally,
- Democratic Debate: there are also differences in the character of the political debate, in which Die Linke opts for the importance of solidarity and critical debate, while BSW prefers left-populism.
The vast majority of Die Linke see the BSW party as being on the progressive side of Germany’s political spectrum – when seen from a rather stationary Overton Window “left-to-right” point of view. Seen from the progressives vs. reactionary viewpoint, one might argue that there are actually five kinds of political parties:
- The Socialists: These are the former East-German PDS that became Die Linke.
- The Moderates: These are the environmentalist Greens – also known as Bio-FDP because of their increasingly petit bourgeois orientation, and included here is the social-democratic SPD, a traditional moderately progressive party. Both have joined Germany’s center-progressives.
- The Conservatives: These are the conservative pro-business CDU and the even more conservative CSU, the CDU’s setup in Bavaria.
- The Neoliberals: The only true representatives of the ideology of neoliberalism are Germany’s FDP, the free democrats.
- The Neo-Nazis: The AfD is still at the extreme right edge of Germany’s political Overton Window, though they are attempting to move the frame in order to appear more normal.
Interestingly, in this description BSW includes numbers 1 and 5 while skipping 2-4. It includes elements of socialist ideas, while on the issue of migration it is extremely close to the AfD.
BSW might exert pressure on the Greens and the SPD from a radical progressive position, but might even cooperate with them, if this ever becomes possible. On the other hand, BSW will put some kind of mild pressure on the CDU and FDP, challenging their conservatism and the ideology of neoliberalism.
The party in the crosshairs of BSW is the AfD. They hope to take voters away from the AfD, particularly those who want to see a stop to migration but aren’t Neo-Nazis. This strategy could be extremely dangerous for the AfD, particularly in East-Germany where East-German born Wagenknecht remains popular and her left-populism will find support.
Almost naturally and instinctively, many supporters of BSW and Wagenknecht reject this positioning. On the one hand, there is the Wagenknecht left-populism that plays the “we are against the ruling elite” card.
BSW will benefit from presenting Germany’s other parties as representatives of the interests of political, cultural, social, and economic elites. The Greens, SPD, CDU and FDP represent western capitalism’s takeover of the DDR to BSW aficionados, to Wagenknecht, and to many voters, particularly in East-Germany.
Like the AfD, BSW also considers the Greens to be an extreme manifestation of the elite. On the other hand, BSW presents itself as standing up for the “vast majority” – a classic populist credo.
However, BSW also sees itself as being firmly set against those who “come from wealthy families”, “urban high earners”, and those in a “privileged position”. These are also typical populist propaganda points.
Much of this political space is currently occupied only by the AfD, to which BSW offers a very serious “alternative” challenge. In other words, BSW – and this is one plausible interpretation – seeks to offer similar policies to those offered by the neo-fascist AfD, but without the its open racism, without its glorification of the Nazi era, and without right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis in its ranks.
The AfD has all of the negative traits associated with populism, while BSW offers populism from the left with some positive traits.
BSW boss Wagenknecht does not consider some of the demands of the AfD to be problematic. She quickly adds: “What makes the AfD so problematic is that it has real Nazis in its ranks. You vote for them when you vote for that party.”
What can be inferred from all this is that BSW would rather pragmatically also rely on active anti-government majorities together with the AfD if the opportunity presents itself.
Still, any cooperation with the AfD would hurt BSW, opening it up to the accusation that BSW and AfD are both on the extremist side of politics, while Germany’s truly democratic parties are the CDU, the SPD, the FDP, and the Greens.
What is uncontroversial is that Wagenknecht and BSW want to govern – that is the raison d’être of any political party. However it remains unclear which government coalition possibilities this would include.
So far, there is a rather across-the-board rejection of the AfD as a coalition partner by all of Germany’s political parties. Wagenknecht has meanwhile denied that BSW is seeking an alliance with the CDU. For Wagenknecht, CDU boss Merz is incompetent and so are the Greens.
In principle, there is a great deal of flexibility in the party. One of BSW’s priority goals is to stop the coalition that currently governs Germany: the so-called traffic light coalition consisting of SPD (red), the neoliberal FDP (yellow), and the Greens (green).
In contrast to SPD, CDU, FDP and the Greens, BSW remains committed to a position that says that Germany must seek close cooperation with Russia and terminate its foreign policy cooperation with the United States. This lies at the heart of what the BSW calls a “consistent peace policy.”
This fundamental principle – pro-Russia and against the USA – shapes all other attitudes to all other international issues. The USA is considered the singular main enemy of peace and development.
At the same time, Russia’s positions are actively promoted. As regards the Ukraine war, BSW demands an immediate stop of arms deliveries to Ukraine. It wants Germany to exit from any program that sanctions Russia.
BSW also has a positive attitude towards China. It is supportive of the anti-Western and pro-Russian military coup in Niger. BSW believes that there is currently a bloc in formation: the West against the rest of the world.
On many issues, BSW believes that neutrality is not a value in itself, but is a peace policy, even if this expands Russia’s scope of action. For BSW, political ties with Russia are of central value and cannot be shaken by actual events.
For Wagenknecht, the West has launched an unprecedented economic war against Germany’s most important energy supplier. Wagenknecht believes that if Germany wants to remain an industrialized country, then Germany needs Russian raw materials. BSW supports Nord Stream and wants it to be put back into operation.
The final point is BSW’s concern about the choice of political weapons and the style of political confrontation. For BSW one of the key questions is what can be allowed in populist rhetoric and what needs to be excluded for the left. Wagenknecht’s populist tactics include the calculated breaking of taboos, including the insulting treatment of other parties.
Unfortunately, this includes taking up right-wing populist talking-points with great media resonance such as, for example, limiting immigration, questioning climate transformation, etc.
BSW has attacked members of Germany’s government on a personal level, calling ministers stupid and cowardly. At the same time, Die Linke is abused as “a group of politically incompetent clowns” and “their work is limited to that of a schoolboy working as a shelf-filler at Aldi.”
BSW believes any focus on the LGBTQI+ movement and solidarity with migrants is that of metro-sexual “students and academics who are quite well-off, having a family background that gives them security.”
Given all this, some people argue that BSW represents another form of right-wing populism, not some sort of hybrid between left-wing and right-wing populism. BSW might just end up being a more modern and more moderate version of the AfD. Actually, BSW distances itself from the AfD’s right-wing extremists and its open racism.
Left-populism is based on the contrast between the elite/establishment and the general population – the people. Right-wing populism also does this, but it always needs a third element, the internal/external enemy, from which the real threat emanates. Left-wing populism accuses the elite of not caring about “the people”.
Right-wing populism accuses the elite of not caring about “the people” because the elite cares too much about “the others,” who do not belong to “us.”
These “others” are typically vulnerable social groups who are assigned a subordinate position in relation to “the people”. These could be feminists and the student movement in the 1960s, or climate-driven and urban milieus. Of course outsiders seeking a better life, immigrants and refugees, always play a prominent role in their demonizations.
Whether BSW will succeed is still an open question. BSW might be able to gain a critical mass, build a successful party structure and establish a balance between the charismatic top personality of Wagenknecht and develop a broader strategy. Based on the way things are currently playing out, this remains a rather far-fetched dream.
So far – thankfully – all attempts to establish political unity between the CDU and the AfD have failed. Those who tried it only ever gained regional or local relevance. So far, the CDU/CSU political strategy of taking up AfD issues has only contributed to the success of the AfD.
Right-wing populists have secured a space that might even survive the recent anti-Neo-Nazi mass rallies throughout Germany. Whether Wagenknecht’s BSW can establish itself as a left-populist force that erodes the influence of the AfD in Germany remains to be seen.
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