As voter dissatisfaction is on the rise in Europe’s largest economy, Germany’s political landscape is increasingly fractured, with a new political player attempting to win over voters who turned their back on traditional parties.
For decades, Germany has been regarded as a beacon of political stability, where centrist parties dominated the scene. “Elections are won in the centre” was the guiding mantra of former chancellor Angela Merkel’s election success. The New York Times even concluded that Germans like their politics to be boring.
But with Germany suffering from a multitude of crises, from the surge in energy prices to economic recession, the electorate is increasingly heading towards the political fringes. And some political newcomers are attempting to benefit from this trend.
“If we look at the voter turnout and the polls, is it foreseeable that less than 50% of eligible voters will cast their vote for one of the so-called democratic centrist parties in the next federal election,” German left-wing icon Sahra Wagenknecht said following the launch of her new party on Monday.
“The majority have lost confidence in these established parties,” she added at a press conference.
The new party, which is named “Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance” (BSW) after its founder, primarily consists of former MPs of the Left Party. While her party is currently polling at around 5%, some surveys suggest that its political potential lies at around 27%.
Wagenknecht’s new party is only the most recent example of a process of fragmentation that has been taking place in Germany for some time.
“Fragmentation has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. This is particularly due to the declining loyalty of the once popular and electorally successful parties. The crisis of the mainstream parties has created space for political competitors,” Dorothée de Nève, professor for Political Science at the Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, told Euractiv.
While it is unlikely that Europe’s largest economy will end up like the Netherlands, where over 15 parties are represented in the parliament, the recent developments mark a new climax in the degree of fragmentation.
“The German party system is already more fractured than ever before and this will be exacerbated by the Wagenknecht party,” Thomas Biebricher, Professor for Political Science at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, told Euractiv.
“There is not much left of the former major popular parties and those who wanted to succeed them, apart from a CDU/CSU at just over thirty percent,” he added.
Wagenknecht is set to primarily benefit from the dissatisfaction with the government. The three coalition parties combined a currently polling at only 32%. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ approval rating also took a dive and recently hit a record low of 19% – less than half of the lowest approval rating of Merkel ever recorded.
The declining popularity of the government is particularly visible in Germany’s east. A recent poll found that in the state of Saxony, the three ruling parties of Scholz’ coalition would only receive 14% of the votes, with the FDP and the SPD likely to even miss the electoral threshold required to enter the regional parliament.
Fishing on the right
But Wagenknecht isn’t the only potential newcomer that could shake up German politics. Last week, former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency and enfant terrible of the conservative CDU, Hans-Georg Maaßen, said that he too is thinking about founding a new party.
Maaßen is currently head of the Werteunion, an association that claims to represent the conservative core of the CDU and has often been pushing their party to take a more conservative stance. As this push has largely failed in the eyes of the Maaßen he announced on Thursday that the members of the Werteunion will vote on whether to secede from the CDU to run on their own party platform.
While Wagenknecht and Maaßen come from opposing ends of the political spectrum, they are competing for the same voter base as they are trying to appeal to voters of the far-right AfD that is currently polling at an all-time high of around 23%.
Maaßen makes no secret of the political similarity to their rival on the left.
“What I notice with Sahra Wagenknecht, but also with the AfD, is that they simply speak frankly and freely about the problems we have in Germany and I agree very closely with some of them,” Maaßen told die Welt, adding that the differences only become apparent when it comes to the proposed solutions.
For newcomer parties, the upcoming European elections present a unique opportunity to test the waters and sharpen their political profile ahead of the Bundestagswahl and some crucial regional elections.
“The European elections, to be clear, are of course also so important for us because they will send out a nationwide political signal,” Wagenknecht said on Monday.
While the federal and regional elections have a threshold of 5% for parties to enter the parliament, this hurdle does not exist regarding the European election. It is thus much easier for newcomer parties to run a successful campaign for the European Parliament.
“Of course, the European elections are therefore particularly interesting for smaller parties and new parties – also for financial reasons,” the expert de Nève stated.
Whether Wagenknecht will be able to fully establish her party long-term will however primarily depend on her ability to offer a programme that “convinces voters on a national and state political level,” de Nève added.
This will be especially crucial for the upcoming regional elections.
Three of the former Eastern German states, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony, are set to head to the polls this year, with the far-right AfD currently leading in all three of them.
Wagenknecht hopes to sway voters from the far right, and she could be successful, as current polls put her party at around 11% in Brandenburg.
“Wagenknecht can hope for votes in the right-wing conservative-authoritarian spectrum; the combination of a rather left-wing economic policy and socio-politically at least conservative positions on migration, Europe, but also minority policy, is quite connectable,” the expert Biebricher concluded.
(Oliver Noyan | Euractiv.com)