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Lower taxes, higher pensions: New leftist party wins over Germany’s disaffected

In World
June 10, 2024

By Thomas Escritt

BERLIN (Reuters) – A party founded just five months ago by an icon of Germany’s hard left has gone from a standing start to seemingly automatic coalition partner in three eastern regions where elections are due later this year.

The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), whose eponymous leader quit the ailing Left party last year, promised voters less bureaucracy, lower taxes and better pensions, and called for an end to arms for Ukraine.

That eclectic pitch won it 6% of the vote in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, while in some eastern states, strongholds of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the BSW took a comfortable third place on as much as 15%.

“There are many people who didn’t know who to vote for and now they have found a political home again,” a jubilant Wagenknecht told reporters on Monday. “Our aim first of all is to give a new home to people who are furious and angry and despairing about Germany’s bad politics.”

With the AfD leading in polls across much of eastern Germany, and most parties ruling out governing with them, the BSW may end up the key to forming regional coalitions together with more mainstream parties later this year.

To some extent, exit polls bear Wagenknecht out: her party drew some 500,000 voters from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, 400,000 from a near-moribund Left party and 140,000 from the AfD, according to public broadcaster ARD.

Born in 1969 in then-Communist East Germany to an Iranian father and German mother, Wagenknecht has been a lightning rod in German leftist politics for almost two decades.

She has used her rhetorical gifts to establish a cult following but often angered colleagues for whom she was not enough of a team player.

The outcome of the European Parliament vote, held after a bout of inflation that crippled many on lower incomes and at a time of deep anxiety over the state of Germany’s economy and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was also shaped by a broad sense of disillusionment with mainstream parties.

ARD’s poll found that a full 44% voted for the AfD out of disappointment at other parties.

In many respects, Wagenknecht’s populist brew differs little from that of the AfD, with which she has said she will not enter a coalition. Both want tighter migration controls and better social benefits, and both are ambivalent on the war in Ukraine.

“We naturally condemn this war,” Wagenknecht told reporters, without mentioning that Russia started it with its full-scale invasion in February 2022. She added that arming Ukraine would not end the war and that the West should “test (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s stated willingness to negotiate”.

“(Germany) used not to take sides in conflicts around the world but played a mediating role and was respected by both sides.”

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; editing by Rachel More and Mark Heinrich)

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