Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 November 2022

Too many German voters are gravitating to the political extremes

Opinion by Katja Hoyer

November 25, 2022 at 20:00 Taiwan Time

The curious case of Sahra Wagenknecht can tell you a lot about the current state of German politics. Polls rank her as the country’s most popular female leader. An intensely charismatic woman, the 53-year-old Wagenknecht grew up in East Germany. She joined the ruling socialist party in 1989 and has served as a member of parliament for its successor organization, known today as Die Linke (“The Left”), since 2007. While her party is floundering, earning around 5 percent in the polls, Wagenknecht’s personal approval rating has soared.

She’s built her success by opposing covid-19 lockdowns, “woke” culture and support for Ukraine — all policies identified with a government seen as increasingly out of touch with ordinary people suffering from rising inflation and the economic effects of the pandemic. The fact that she has been “open about taking Russia’s side in the war,” as one commentator puts it, doesn’t seem to have dimmed her appeal. Her stance also helps to explain why she’s finding supporters not only on the far left of the political spectrum — but also among members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the resurgent right-wing populists.

With trust in the government at a record low, people are looking to radical politics for solutions. On a recent evening in the eastern city of Dresden, I looked on as hundreds of angry people joined in an anti-government demonstration organized by a far-right group. “Those at the top can’t tell us what to do!” jeered one of the leaders into his microphone to widespread cheers. “End the war now and buy cheap gas in Russia,” shouts another. Handmade placards read “Vaccine boycott now!” and “Down with the Greens!”

The demonstrators didn’t appear to be violent extremists. There wasn’t a shaved head in sight and no one was wearing black boots. Many of the participants were middle-aged. Explicitly peaceful, they claimed to be the heirs of the mass demonstrations that helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. In fact, the number of those taking to the streets remains relatively small. But the scale of the disaffection is serious. According to a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Germans don’t trust their government to do its job — an all-time low. Yet the politicians in Berlin show little concern about the trend

.No one regards the far left, which in theory stands to gain the most from the anger of the masses, as a political threat. Plagued by infighting, the Left holds only 5.3 percent of the seats in parliament.

Yet Wagenknecht’s rise is bucking the trend. In recent years she has criticized the liberals in her own ranks and elsewhere as the “lifestyle leftists,” allegedly more interested in using “gender language” than fighting for those on low wages.

Now, she’s thinking about starting her own political party. A poll by Spiegel magazine suggests that half of all voters in the former East Germany would consider voting for her — as well as a quarter of those in the former West. Remarkably, the survey also indicated that more than two-thirds of those currently voting for the far-right party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) would give the former communist their vote. Her anti-establishment politics are extremely popular with the disgruntled on both ends of the political spectrum.

If Wagenknecht is an underestimated threat, the AfD doesn’t seem to be causing many sleepless nights in Berlin either. The mainstream parties feel safe in the knowledge that they have agreed not to form coalitions with the far right, which would complicate its efforts to form a government even if it had the votes. “The firewall must stand, and the door to the far right must remain shut,” insisted Green Party politician Emily Büning this month.

Yet the AfD is only two percentage points behind the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who would only win a mere 18 percent of the vote according to the latest polling. That is making it increasingly hard to exclude the far-right populists, especially at the local level, where their vote share can be decisive. In the state of Thuringia, the AfD made a deal with the Christian Democratic Union, former chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, to pass legislation. In the Swabian constituency of Backnang, legislation proposed by the AfD passed with only one opposing vote. The party has become an enduring force in German politics, particularly in the former East, where polls suggest it is now the most popular party.

It is high time that the political mainstream in Germany took note of the scale of disaffection. Poll results and anger on the streets should ring alarm bells in Berlin. The advocates of moderate policies will only win the hearts and minds of the German people by fighting for their interests, not by taking them for granted.

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