A ‘pro-Russian monster’ or a force for common sense? A new party is reshaping the German political landscape
Germany is in severe crisis. Between a tanking economy and an increasingly unpopular government, the country has begun to show just how much stress it is under. Half a year ago, the head of German carmaker Volkswagen warned that “the roof is on fire,” while The Economist concluded that “disaster,” meaning not just the decline but collapse of the German car industry, is “no longer inconceivable.”
At this moment, the wintry beginning of 2024, German farmers are staging large-scale and escalating protests and forcing the ruling coalition into concessions, the trains are not running on time due to a strike, the country’s wholesale sector has dropped to pandemic-level pessimism, “dampening hopes of a rapid rebound in Europe’s largest economy,” as reported by Bloomberg, residential property prices are in record decline, and the office real estate market “has collapsed,” according to leading German news magazine Der Spiegel.
The Economist finds Germany to be “down” politically as well – in fact, self-relegated – from its status as leader of Europe (or, at least, the EU) to less than second fiddle (that would be France, perhaps): while “Angela Merkel was the continent’s undoubted leader, Olaf Scholz, has not taken on her mantle.”
That is a very British understatement. In reality, in the toxic yet key relationship with the US, Germany, with its hapless attempt to transfer the management concept of “servant leadership” to geopolitics, has now subordinated itself so thoroughly to American neocon-type interests that it has no leverage left at all. Because once you make your loyalty unconditional, you will be taken for granted: Selling oneself may be inevitable for any but the greatest powers. Selling oneself for free takes a special lack of foresight.
We could go on heaping up examples of malaise. But the gist is simple: Germans may love to lay it on thick when it comes to venting their misery and “angst” (I should know, being German), but, clearly, something has to – and will – give. The question is what.
One political force that stands to gain from the crisis has just been established. (Another fairly new party that is profiting is the AfD.) Long rumored and in the making, 8 January saw the official founding of a new party, the Bündnis Sarah Wagenknecht – Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit (Alliance Sarah Wagenknecht – Reason and Justice), or BSW for short. Its leader Sarah Wagenknecht used to be the most popular top politician of the hard-Left party Die Linke, which she left with a bang.
As the name BSW suggests, the new party is, in part, a vehicle for Wagenknecht’s considerable personal political acumen and charisma. Opponents of “Red Sarah,” as the popular, generally right-leaning newspaper Bild still calls her, like to stereotype her as an “icon.” Yet, wiser from the failure of an earlier attempt to strike out on her own (under the label “Aufstehen,” roughly: “Stand Up”), this time, Wagenknecht has gone out of her way and made sure to do her homework, preparing a well-crafted organization, a set of junior leaders around her, and, last but not least, a solid program. This is politically significant: Unlike “Aufstehen,” the BSW will not fold quickly under the weight of its own problems.
On the contrary, the party’s chances of making a strong impact from the get-go are very good, as polls consistently indicate. The most recent one – commissioned by Bild and carried out just days after the party’s founding by a top pollster – shows that 14% of Germans would vote for the BSW in a federal election.
For comparison: the SPD, traditionally one of the core parties of Germany and the political home of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, reaches 14% as well. For the BSW this is an impressive figure, but for the SPD it is catastrophic. Meanwhile the Greens, the second partner in Berlin’s governing “Ampel” coalition, are at 12%. The FDP, the third “Ampel” component, would fail to get any seats at all (due to not crossing Germany’s electoral threshold of 5%). Sarah Wagenknecht’s own former party, Die Linke, would suffer the same fate. The only two parties that would do better than the BSW are the traditional center-right CDU (27%) and the populist-right/far-right AfD (18%).
In sum, with BSW, we are witnessing not the making of a fringe but a core movement in what seems to be emerging as Germany’s re-shaped party system, consisting of three traditional parties (SPD, CDU, and the Greens) and two new forces. The latter are coming from the right and left periphery but are likely to re-define the center, directly and by their pressure on the traditional players.
Representatives of the threatened traditional parties and their expert and mainstream media surrogates often denounce the challengers from the wings as extremists or, at least, irresponsible populists (just another way of saying “demagogue”). But they only have themselves to blame: The true cause of this tectonic movement is the failure of the traditionals. The challengers’ rise marks a reaction to it. Wagenknecht is right about this: Germany’s “democracy is imperiled most of all” by government policies that make ever more citizens feel left alone or alienated.
Against that background, the BSW promises more generous social policies, such as on education, wages, and pensions (and higher taxes for the wealthy). As Germany is doing badly economically, this will resonate. And Wagenknecht, a political “natural,” knows how to signal: She has just taken the side of the protesting farmers – as do the majority (68%) of Germans, according to polls.
Mainstream media are making desperate attempts to frame the rebellious farmers as serving extremists and somehow playing into the hands of – guess which country! – Russia. The ever more besieged minister of the economy Robert Habeck has even detected financing by – guess who! – “Putin!” (without, of course, providing any evidence). This time, these tired scare tactics are failing to catch on. Wagenknecht’s public call for chancellor Olaf Scholz to apologize to the farmers will fare better.
Crucially, Wagenknecht and the BSW have combined socially left approaches with a set of traditionally conservative stances, challenging, for instance, the hypertrophic development of new gender categories or, in general, “symbolical struggles” over hyper-sensitive terminology, so fashionable with what Wagenknecht dismisses as the “lifestyle Left.”
While this push-back against political correctness is a largely symbolic, though effective, operation, migration is a more substantial field. There as well, Wagenknecht has adopted positions closer to the right and center than the liberal left, stressing the need for control and limits. The fact that she herself had a Persian father and that prominent BSW heads are also non-ethnic Germans gives her a strong starting position for this kind of debate, shielding her points from dismissal as racist or xenophobic.
Given how many Germans feel, left alone in an economic crisis and also alienated by especially Green attempts at re-education in the spirit of urban upper class multiculturalism and gender obsessions, it will be hard to counter the BSW’s brand of socially left but otherwise centrist and even conservative policies. No wonder then that opponents are trying to portray Wagenknecht as a monster, along with the new party. Their playbook is predictable and boring: namely to smear them as being pro-Russian or even working in the service of Russia.
In reality, Wagenknecht has positioned her new party to resist the push for ever more confrontation with Moscow, especially with regard to Ukraine. At this moment, for instance, she is speaking up against the delivery of German Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine, which is the latest fad among the insatiable “miracle weapon” addicts. More generally, she is demanding to shift from a policy of military confrontation by proxy to one of negotiation and compromise, which makes, of course, perfect sense.
For her enemies, there is an irony waiting to catch them: They may hope that accusing Wagenknecht of being too friendly toward Russia will weaken her appeal. Yet that ship has sailed. The days of making hay with unbridled neo-McCarthyism are ending. It is more likely, fortunately, that the BSW’s reasonable approach to foreign policy will only get it more sympathy and voters. As it should. Because remember: At this point, Germany is so dependent on the US that it is treated not only like a vassal, but like a vassal whose wishes and interests do not count. Even Germans who distrust Russia will come to understand that this is fundamentally unsound. In its own national interest, Germany must re-establish some balance by rebuilding its relationship with Russia.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.