The alternative to the alternative? How Germany's far left could limit far-right gains in the European elections

A new party set up by former leftist Sahra Wagenknecht will likely claim some of Germany’s 96 seats in the European Parliament when voters go to the polls in June.
Sahra Wagenknecht delivers a speech at the founding party conference of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance for Reason and Justice in January.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

26 Apr 2024

The biggest challenge to Germany’s hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in this year’s European elections looks likely to come from a politician who has spent her whole career on the left. 

Sahra Wagenknecht, who founded a new political party – the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – Reason and Justice (BSW) – in January, confounds attempts at classification. She shares a hardline view on migration with parties typically considered to be far right, such as the AfD, France’s National Rally (RN) or the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). 

Yet she served in socialist parties for more than 30 years, including as the leader of the Left party in the German Bundestag, and continues to uphold left-wing policies on economic issues such as the welfare state and taxation. Wagenknecht, who served as an MEP in the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009 as part of the Left group, currently holds a seat in the Bundestag affiliated with her new party. 

In short, there’s no obvious home for the BSW in any of the European Parliament’s existing transnational groups. Fabio De Masi – the BSW’s lead candidate in the 6 to 9 June parliamentary elections – said in late April that the party had gathered enough support from parties in other countries to form a new group, without specifying which parties those are. 

Who is Sahra Wagenknecht?  

Born in 1969, Wagenknecht grew up in communist East Germany and in 1989 joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany. “Originally a communist, she then became part of Die Linke [the Left] and relatively quickly made a name for herself as someone who speaks very clearly and doesn't mince her words,” says Philipp Lausberg, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC). 

Nevertheless, Wagenknecht was often at odds with other senior members of the Left, particularly on the topic of migration. In recent years she has also criticised “woke” politics and can be characterised as nationalist and Russia-friendly, Lausberg says. Last year Björn Höcke, a particularly radical member of the AfD, invited her to join the party. 

Instead, she founded her own party, which is difficult to place on the political spectrum. 

“When it comes to economic policy issues, [Wagenknecht’s] party tends to be to the left of the centre, sometimes very far to the left,” says Hendrik Träger, a political scientist at Leipzig University. BSW, for instance, wants a reliable welfare state and rejects the privatization of essential services such as healthcare. 

We hold discussions with potential new members to get an impression [so] that no weirdos, obsessives or extremists are infiltrating our party.

In an email to The Parliament, De Masi is eager to point out his party’s differences with the AfD. The BSW supports taxes on wealth and inheritance for billionaires, he says, whereas the AfD rejects such a policy. 

On migration, Träger says that the young party could be described as centre right. According to its European platform, BSW aims only to stop “uncontrolled” migration into the EU. De Masi reiterated that his party wants regulated migration in accordance with the municipalities’ ability to integrate the new arrivals. This is not the politics of resentment, he says. 

The BSW also shows some Eurosceptic tendencies. While it hasn’t called for the EU to be broken up, it has criticised perceived attempts to create a European ‘superstate’ and reduce the autonomy of national governments. 

The party is also restricting the number of new members that it accepts in order to limit more radical elements, De Masi says. “We hold discussions with potential new members to get an impression [so] that no weirdos, obsessives or extremists are infiltrating our party.” 

Challenging the AfD 

Nevertheless, the two parties are close enough that they’re aiming for the same voters, who may be opposed to mass migration, have a relatively favourable view of Russia, and are disenchanted with Germany’s mainstream parties. 

 “We want to make a serious offer to those who vote for the AfD out of frustration and anger because they think this is the most visible way to express their protest,” De Masi says. 

The approach seems to be working. A nationwide survey conducted the week of 19 March by polling institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen found that a total of 17 per cent of voters would have considered voting for the BSW if Germany's federal election were held that week. But in former East Germany, that number rose to 27 per cent – mirroring the AfD’s greater strength in that part of the country. 

“That's why there is potential for the BSW among the AfD’s supporters, simply because they appeal to similar groups of voters,” Andrea Wolf, board member of Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, tells The Parliament. “When looking into the supporter groups, we see the greatest potential in the AfD’s support base: 43 per cent of AfD supporters consider voting for the BSW.” 

When looking into the supporter groups, we see the greatest potential in the AfD’s support base: 43 percent of AfD supporters consider voting for the BSW.

Among supporters of the Left, Wagenknecht’s former political home, the polling found potential support for the BSW at just 9 percent.  

The BSW is unlikely to eclipse the AfD, at least in this election cycle. A survey conducted by the polling insitute Insa on 16 May found that the BSW could take seven per cent of the vote when Germans cast their ballots for the European Parliament in early June, compared with 17 per cent for the AfD.  

But the presence of another anti-establishment party is nevertheless likely to eat into the AfD’s vote share. “BSW will certainly take away votes and mandates from Die Linke and the AfD and thus prevent their election results from growing as high as the parties might imagine,” Träger argues. 

The AfD itself is seeking to downplay the danger. “The BSW is a left-wing party that analyses problems from a left-wing perspective and proposes solutions. We are a right-wing party that does that from a right-wing perspective,” says Maximilian Krah, an MEP and the AfD’s lead candidate in the European elections, whose aide was recently arrested for allegedly spying for China

“Our core questions are migration and identity – the BSW provides different answers to both questions.” 

This article was updated on 22 May to reflect news polling data. 

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