News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Western Europe - Democratic Socialism After the Split in Die Linke: The Rise of Anti-Establishment Centrism?

A preliminary attempt to situate the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance within the German party system


A sign with the logo of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance or BSW at its founding congress in Berlin, 27 January 2024. Photo: IMAGO / dts Nachrichtenagentur

After a long run-up, on 23 October 2023, Sahra Wagenknecht, former co-chair of Die Linke’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag, resigned from Die Linke along with ten other MPs, adding another splinter group to the fractious history of Germany’s left-wing parties. In forming their new association, the “Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance — Reason and Fairness” (BSW), they paved the way for the formation of a new political party, officially founded on 27 January 2024, in which Wagenknecht will occupy a central role as co-chair and namesake. Over the course of 2024, the party is to stand for election to the European Parliament. They also seek to participate in state elections in three eastern states, although they still face financial, organizational, and staffing restrictions.

Carsten Braband is a social scientist. He studies political sociology and the electorate of left-and right-populist parties and is a member of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s discussion group on class and social structure analysis.

Mario Candeias is a political scientist and former director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.

The formation of the BSW party garnered significant media attention for months. Some surveys have suggested remarkable chances of success, giving them up to 14 percent of the vote. The Wagenknecht alliance has quickly come to be seen as a last recourse against the threat of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) electoral victories, especially in eastern Germany. Others have suggested that, by adopting radical right-wing positions for its core issues, such a party would further normalize, legitimize, and even strengthen these positions in the polls.

The Forsa research institute, on the other hand, puts the BSW on the level of a fringe party. Were BSW to stand for election right now, according to Forsa, they would risk “an election fiasco, with their entry into the Bundestag a marked failure. At the same time, prognoses for Die Linke are also divergent — while some predict the party’s demise with Wagenknecht’s resignation, others stress the chances for realignment heralded by her departure.

In immediate terms, it means the loss of Die Linke’s status as a parliamentary faction. Having entered the Bundestag in 2021 with 4.9 percent of secondary votes and three direct mandates, with the resignations, the party has seen its delegate tally shrink from 38 to 28 members. Both parties’ delegates have now petitioned to be recognized as two separate parliamentary groups. The Bundestag’s decision on these requests is still pending.

Is this the end of Die Linke at the national level? With its ambiguous multiplicity of voices and mixed messages, the party had long confused voters and activists. A public-facing resolution of conflicts within the party and establishment of clarity would have been necessary to fundamentally reforge the party in any case, shedding the image of deep division and self-absorption that has predominated for six years now. Yet oppositions within the party had long been terminally entrenched. The split had become necessary.

Wagenknecht’s rhetoric addresses the status-related fears and aspirations to protect the vested interests of those who have something to lose.

Contrary to media accounts of downfall and demise, it was not the withdrawal of Wagenknecht and her entourage from Die Linke, but rather the party’s political deadlock that posed the greater danger to its continued existence. The reasons for the split are numerous, related to societal shifts and conflicts, yet questions of political tactics and objectives were invariably intertwined with intra-party power struggles. One can debate whether the split could have been avoided earlier on. Ultimately, there was no party majority in favour of the positions represented by the group around Wagenknecht, which increasingly tried to distinguish itself publicly from the rest of the party.

For Die Linke, this may be a chance at clear communication, without permanent — and prominent — crossfire from within its own ranks. Given their asocial policies, failures in climate and the economy, and right-wing positions on migration, the current governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Free Democrats (FDP), and Greens leaves plenty of room for a new party on the Left.

But they’re not the only ones: with her new project, Wagenknecht, too, seems to be distancing herself from many left-wing positions even beyond migration and socio-political questions, leaving room for a socially and ecologically left-wing socialist party. She’s no longer following the example of former heroes ­like Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, she seems to be taking her cue from Danish Social Democracy, with its hard line on migration. She herself has described her approach as “left-conservative”, as have many commentators, although she now avoids the term.

This all begs the question: to what extent is her venture still a left-wing one? Where does the BSW belong on the political spectrum?

Building BSW

Formalizing the party structure has been named by some observers and by Wagenknecht herself as a central challenge to successful party formation. So far, this has been expressed through a restrictive membership policy: the content of membership applications is to be examined in order to keep “difficult people” at bay. There is currently no possibility for outsiders to join BSW or to take part in the group politically.

With its 44 founding members, the BSW is relying for personnel particularly on ten Bundestag delegates around Sahra Wagenknecht, as well as some former officials and elected representatives from Die Linke. While there are isolated reports at the local level of city- and district-council members from Die Linke going over to BSW, the vast majority of leading officials at the national level remain with Die Linke. Fifteen of the 16 state executive committees have distanced themselves from the schism along with the party leadership, and only two out of a total of 118 delegates to the state parliaments have joined the BSW.

While there have been 838 resignations from Die Linke since the formation of the BSW party was announced on 23 October, that’s contrasted with more than 2,100 new members joining as of early December 2023, disproportionately from Berlin. Although the numbers are not yet conclusively comparable, as the BSW party formed less than one week ago, large-scale defections from Die Linke to BSW have so far failed to materialize. The party members and officials who had switched from Die Linke to the BSW as of December 2023 will certainly not suffice to establish a new party with branches at county and state levels.

Coming up with a candidate list for the European Parliament elections in May 2024 will be an easier task. There is no five-percent threshold for winning seats in the European Parliament, and entry into the parliament is achievable even with modest approval. Wagenknecht herself will not be running, so much depends on finding attractive candidates for this election. Fabio de Masi, a former Member of the Bundestag for Die Linke and a prominent expert in financial crime (such as the CumEx scandal), has emerged as the front-runner for this role. So has former Düsseldorf mayor and SPD member Thomas Geisel, once a manager at Ruhrgas and a well-known proponent of the Hartz IV reforms. In early 2023, he was involved in a dispute with then-Ukrainian ambassador Andrij Melnyk, rebuffing the latter’s calls for more weapons deliveries (“That’s enough, Mr. Melnyk”). He criticized deliveries to Ukraine because he said they would hurt German interests.

Sahra Wagenknecht and Amira Mohamed Ali, former co-chair of Die Linke’s Bundestag faction, will chair the BSW. University professor Shervin Haghsheno, previously a manager at the construction company Bilfinger, will be deputy party chair. As an economist, he researches and teaches “lean construction”, according to the “lean manufacturing” approach; among other things, this approach involves externalizing as much of the (labour) costs as possible. Christian Leye, a former employee of Wagenknecht’s and currently a member of the Bundestag, will be the BSW’s general secretary.

Situating and Characterizing the Party

Any political classification of a party that has just formed can be no more than tentative. No real party or election platform exists yet, only the founding manifesto of the BSW association. Yet as the name shows, the person of Sahra Wagenknecht will occupy an exceptional position within the new party. With its top-down organizational approach, the venture relies on a cult of personality. In this respect, Wagenknecht’s political statements, in addition to the founding manifesto, may be considered a central indicator of the project’s future orientation.

Wagenknecht herself has described her tack over the last few years as “left-conservative”, as stated above: socio-economically left-wing, socio-politically conservative, she endorses social equity and demands restrictive migration and integration policies in equal measure. She and her milieu have recognized a gap in representation here, and hope to offer these voters a political deal. It definitely has potential; in fact, many observers have classified the venture as “left-authoritarian”, often used synonymously with “left-conservative”.

A particular mode of leadership is likewise apparent in the venture: an ethnic-populist form of leadership that constantly refers back to the will of the people, while actually withholding political power from the demographics and potential voting blocs that support the undertaking. Wagenknecht is especially targeting, in Oliver Nachtwey’s words, “the representation of the passive (and reactionary) segments of the lower and middle classes”.

This political mode follows a strongly media-oriented approach, whose discourse ties together and condenses the convergence points of many different groups and demands, identities and cultures. It does this through media polarization and escalation of the political landscape. Various concerns are incorporated, passively depicted, and discursively conflated. The intention here is to gather the masses together in support of a populist project in which they’ll feel represented. Accordingly, the project does not operate so much on the level of actual social movements and initiatives, or involvement in the basics of daily life, but rather tries to broaden the visibility of relevant demands, lending them a louder and more effective voice. The goal is to shift public discourse and political power relations, as well as to capture parliamentary influence.

Wagenknecht’s rhetoric is one that is habitual among those who are far removed from the working class but promote this particular kind of worker valorization.

Wagenknecht’s rhetoric addresses the status-related fears and aspirations to protect the vested interests of those who have something to lose. Nachtwey calls this a “fostering of resentment”. In return, there is a kind of “cultural valorization”, addressing workers according to an antiquated image of the working class. The invocation of old worker identities and a merit-based worldview is combined with a strong denunciation of progressive feminism and queer policies and people, and with the accusation that anti-racists are “lifestyle-lefties” and “the self-righteous”, which serves the culture wars of the right. This discourse is intended to “win back” the working-class AfD voters who have supposedly been disappointed by the left. But even if Wagenknecht does succeed in winning them over to this new undertaking, which is still uncertain, with this as her platform, she will not be winning them back for the Left.

Wagenknecht’s rhetoric is one that is habitual among those who are far removed from the working class but promote this particular kind of worker valorization; fellow campaigners like Klaus Ernst and Christian Leye are somewhat less removed. This type of appeal does not play a role in the BSW’s founding manifesto. Such valorization has always come across as instrumental, subordinate to the cause of imagined representation. This form of leadership could be described, following Antonio Gramsci, as “Caesarism”, or following Karl Marx, as “Bonapartism” — this is where the populist element enters. We are left, then, with the question of to what extent this remains a left-wing endeavour.

Wagenknecht’s positions on migration policy are well-known. The BSW does not merely advocate for limiting migration; Wagenknecht has demanded that monetary social benefits be dropped for asylum seekers whose claims have been denied, citing false statistics of rejected asylum applications, and approved the call put forth by FDP maverick Wolfgang Kubicki for a neighbourhood migrant quota, saying, “I believe there should be no district of the city where the locals are in the minority, and no school classes where more than half the children barely speak German. Not to mention that we desperately need rules preventing immigrants from being misused as cheap labour reducing wages in our job market.” She has put this directly on migrants, saying, “If you abuse your right to hospitality, you forfeit your right to hospitality”.

The BSW’s founding manifesto is for restricting immigration as soon as it “overwhelms […] our country and our infrastructure”, and against labour migration generally. This anti-migration and welfare-chauvinist rhetoric has been a central part of her communications since the refugee movement of 2015, invariably directed against the positions held by Wagenknecht’s own party, Die Linke, allegedly in order not to yield the floor to the AfD on this issue.

Her rhetoric on climate policy follows the same pattern. She has criticized the policies of the governing coalition, especially the Greens, as anti-social, “crazy”, and “dumb”, particularly severe in her opposition to the Buildings Energy Act (including citing false information about heat pumps). Her criticism has differed from that of Die Linke not in that she has put forward more convincing socio-ecological ideas, but in that she has relativized the importance of climate policy.

Accordingly, the BSW opposes the phase-out of combustion engines and a complete conversion to renewable energy, while, much like the FDP, calling in their founding manifesto for “technology-openness”, stating that the “most important contribution that a country like Germany can make to the fight against climate change and environmental destruction is to develop innovative key technologies for a climate-neutral and nature-friendly economy of the future.” Ecological renovation is thus pushed back into the distant future, and pseudo-solutions like synthetic fuel (which Klaus Ernst especially has lobbied for) called into play.

On topics related to equality and minority policy, often discussed under the heading of “identity politics”, Wagenknecht champions conservative (to reactionary) positions. She opposed, for example, the recently enacted law on gender self-determination as well as the use of gender-inclusive language, and polemicizes in her book Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”) against what she calls Lifestyle-Linke (“lifestyle lefties”).

In its founding manifesto, the BSW advertises its opposition to “cancel culture” and the alleged narrowing of the range of acceptable discourse. Wagenknecht and her followers allege contrafactually that Die Linke only represents the young, urban, academic milieu, publicly pursuing identity politics and other trendy issues like climate policy, while neglecting the social question and the question of peace. In truth, “identity and class politics are not contradictory. But the supposed conflict [between them] is constantly being fuelled to secure one’s own influence,” as Daniel Reitzig writes in the German edition of Jacobin.

Along with this specific understanding of equal opportunity and performance-based fairness, the BSW’s founding manifesto also praises the German middle class.

As a consequence, Wagenknecht has been accused by political commentators both within and outside Die Linke of conducting right-wing culture wars. It is certainly the case that these positions correspond to individual claims from conservative and right-wing parties. In any case, such positions can hardly be characterized as “left”.

Yet Wagenknecht herself has stated that her new party undertaking is not “a left one”. Her positions on migration, climate, and equality for women and gender minorities are unquestionably conservative in a negative sense. But her economic positions, with their focus on small and medium-sized businesses, could also be described as conservative, or ordoliberal (Wagenknecht herself often refers to the works of the Ordoliberal school in Germany).

As Nachtwey writes, “She criticizes capitalism for the semi-feudal reign of big corporations, which prevent efficiency, innovation, and (real) competition. She is closer to Joseph Schumpeter than to Karl Marx”. [1] She invokes the yearning for “an improbable return to capitalism’s Golden Age”. A nationalistic Keynesianism has taken the place of internationalism, capitalist competition that of (planned-economy) cooperation. With this focus on “national sovereignty” and “economic competition”, she breaks with important premises of socialist transformation strategies and perspectives.

Her statements on peace policy line up here as well, with her positions against the formation of geopolitical blocs and sanctions against Russia. Russian aggression and the suffering in Ukraine may be briefly mentioned here and there, but the decisive argument is, for Wagenknecht, that the war hurts the interests of Germany and German industry, particularly through rising energy prices. Accordingly, she and her colleagues advocate for the resumption of Russian gas shipments and the activation of Nord Stream 2 in order to supply Germany with cheap energy. This is where her welfare-chauvinist, foreign-policy, and integration-policy positions converge.

Recently, Wagenknecht’s statements in favour of sanctions, especially for young unemployed people and welfare recipients, put her in line with a pervasive resentment-laden discourse against allegedly unjustified social security benefits in cases of “insufficient participation” by those concerned, a discourse fostered by AfD and the Christian Democrats all the way to Minister of Labour Hubertus Heil from the SPD. Socio-politically, she has so far advocated only for higher pensions and better social security benefits for unemployed seniors, far less than, for example, the socio-political platform of Die Linke. “Even if you’ve worked for years and paid into public social security funds, after just one year out of work, you’re treated like a supplicant”, the BSW’s founding manifesto states in reference to fairness of contribution concerns. Inequality and the lack of social mobility are criticized, along with poverty among children, the elderly, and single parents, despite unemployment assistance.

The achievements of the “hard-working” should be rewarded again, respect and social security restored, says BSW: “Our goal is a fair meritocracy with real equality of opportunity and a high degree of social security.” For “[p]ersonal prosperity must not be a question of social background; it must be the result of hard work and individual exertion” (ibid). BSW argues for moderate wealth redistribution, in accordance with the retro-normative, conservative idea that meritocracy and “social cohesion” in a nationalist context must be restored.

All in all, the BSW can most aptly be classified as a ‘centrist anti-establishment party’ with a mix of political demands depending on the issue, in accord with its aspiration to be a ‘people’s party’ beyond being right or left.

Along with this specific understanding of equal opportunity and performance-based fairness, the BSW’s founding manifesto also praises the German middle class, who are accorded recognition as “hidden champions”, as is also the case among Wagenknecht’s writings. The market power of corporations garners criticism, but not the frequently anti-union policies of the middle class, which make it difficult for unions to establish labour and organizing rights. An understanding of class antagonism disappears behind the performance groups of “workers” and “corporations”.

In this sense, it is doubtful whether this project can be described as unwaveringly left-conservative or left-authoritarian; perhaps the party is looking for a space between the AfD, FDP, and right-wing SPD, somewhere “in the middle” where the BSW imagines the representation gap to lie, while really wanting to outperform all other parties, including AfD and Die Linke.

On the other hand, the BSW calls for more investment in public services to stop the “deterioration of infrastructure”, using a wealth tax to hold billionaires liable for funding, and the siphoning off of unearned corporate gains through excess profits tax . In a general sense, they call for “a reliable welfare state”. These are all classic left-wing demands, just with less concretization. It remains to be seen what relative value each of the variously conservative, liberal, right-wing social-democratic, and even left-wing set pieces will be given.

All in all, the BSW can most aptly be classified as a “centrist anti-establishment party” with a mix of political demands depending on the issue, in accord with its aspiration to be a “people’s party” beyond being right or left. The BSW invokes “expertise, reason, and sound judgment”, in a vague way.

Notably, and completely in keeping with this characterization, some other non-populist notes have gotten mixed into Wagenknecht’s rhetoric since leaving Die Linke. For example, she indicated in an interview that she would be open to entering into a ruling coalition with the conservative CDU in Saxony after the state election. While in Die Linke, Wagenknecht long advocated steering a course of fundamental opposition to this, and coalitions with the CDU/CSU were, until now, out of the question.

Voter Positions and Potential Electoral Base

In terms of their political positions and self-image, potential BSW voters see themselves on average not as left-wing, but rather as somewhere in the centre of the political spectrum, similar to those who vote for FDP, CDU/CSU, and non-voters, and further to the right of SPD voters. In this respect, their political self-image corresponds more to AfD voters than to Die Linke’s voting base.

The voters targeted by BSW differ from (potential) Die Linke voters not only in their attitudes, but also in their current electoral behaviour. Previous analyses have shown that a clear majority of BSW sympathizers would currently be voting for parties on the political right, first and foremost the AfD. In comparison to this camp, Die Linke voters are less relevant for the BSW.

There are also significant different between Die Linke and the BSW in terms of age distribution: Die Linke has far greater potential among younger people, while potential BSW voters tend to be older. Looking at net household income reveals that Die Linke has much stronger potential especially among those with lower incomes, while for the BSW, this potential is shifted toward those of middle income.

Die Linke must contend with a new political rival while the formation of the BSW might cause destabilizing uncertainty among voters about the essence of the party’s brand.

Die Linke has somewhat greater potential among the economically active (15 percent, as opposed to 14 percent among the economically inactive) than the BSW does (10 percent, as opposed to 15 percent). Looking at age distribution, household income, and occupation allows us to conclude that the BSW appeals to comparatively more retirees, while low-income workers and the unemployed tend more toward Die Linke.

With her increased turn away from the Left and toward the centre-right, Wagenknecht hopes to win over unhappy voters from the ranks of the AfD, from non-voters, and from the SPD, simultaneously taking as many Die Linke voters with her as possible. This balancing act may become an acid test for the party.[2]

In the short term, eclectic, populist party ventures can capitalize on political dissatisfaction. Yet this is no replacement for an ideologically coherent voter base. In the longer term, ideological factors play a larger role. In the course of parliamentary work, and because parties are put under pressure by political rivals and the media, they must take substantive positions on issues. Political scientist Sarah Engler has shown that centrist anti-establishment parties whose support base — like that of the BSW — does not predominantly identify as either left- or right-leaning have, in the past, had very low prospects for long-term survival.

At all events, Die Linke must contend with a new political rival while the formation of the BSW might cause destabilizing uncertainty among voters about the essence of the party’s brand. Conversely, this pressure might generate a potential expansion for Die Linke, necessitating more clarity, a unified orientation on social and ecological fronts, a union orientation, and demands for radical redistribution and firm peace policies in keeping with the times. There is considerable potential for Die Linke* especially among low-income people, those disappointed by the SPD and the Greens, returning voters who left because of Wagenknecht, young first-time voters, and, generally, to mobilize former voters and non-voters whenever possible.

Both Die Linke and the BSW may face difficulties crossing the five-percent threshold in the 2025 parliamentary elections. But there is potential for both parties. The coming elections leading up to the Bundestag elections will serve as an indicator of each party’s success in exploiting their potential and turning it into electoral victory.

Translated by Anna Dinwoodie and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] A departure from Marxism that can be traced in Wagenknecht’s books as far back at the early 2010s. This may also be an echo of the “stamocap” approach, a critique of state monopoly capitalism, as represented by the former Working Group of Young Socialists in the SPD who later adopted centrist positions (Gerhard Schröder, Olaf Scholz), or by parts of the German Communist Party who later switched to Die Linke and now to the BSW. In Ordoliberal terms, however, this does not arouse suspicions of leftism, but rather awakens interest in the left-wing dissident among the right-liberal media like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Welt.

[2] It is possible that (at least) two flanks will develop around Wagenknecht, a left-wing populist flank and a vague-to-right-wing-populist flank.