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How Die Linke’s election hopes are being held back by a glamorous but unloved leader

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How Die Linke’s election hopes are being held back by a glamorous but unloved leader
Sahra Wagenknecht. Photo: DPA
11:39 CEST+02:00
A recent poll shows that the left-wing Die Linke could once again be the third biggest party in Germany after the election. But their leader is the least popular in the country.

With her stylish clothes and neatly pinned-up hair, Sahra Wagenknecht cuts a relatively glamorous figure on Germany's rather drab political stage.

But the 48-year-old chief of Germany's hard-left Die Linke, which emerged from the East German Communist Party, is heading into this month's national election in the rather unique position of being the country’s most unpopular party leader.

While a poll published on Wednesday showed Die Linke coming in as the nation's third major force ahead of the September 24th election, Wagenknecht is consistently at the bottom of the approval ratings published by the nation's pollsters.

Berlin-based polling group Forsa found that Die Linke was now backed by 10 per cent of voters – still far behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and her junior coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

But Die Linke continues to struggle to break out of the east and to emerge as a national political force.

"Die Linke faced tough problems in western Germany," said Forsa head Manfred Güllner. "In the west, it is seen as an East German party."

In addition to demanding the abolition of the NATO military alliance, the party platform of Die Linke has a strong pacifist focus.

It also calls for a 75 per cent tax on the nation's top earners.

A key member of Die Linke's Communist Platform, Wagenknecht once famously dismissed the Berlin Wall that divided Germany for more than 40 years as a "necessary evil."

She has also lashed out at neo-liberalism, while calling on Europe's biggest economy to turn away from capitalism.

An economist born in the eastern city of Jena to an Iranian father and German mother, Wagenknecht is a strong public speaker and a regular on the German television talkshow circuit.

Unlike the SPD, which remained stuck in the Forsa poll at just 23 per cent, Die Linke appears to have mobilized support by calling for more social justice: It wants to boost pensions, protect renters and head off temporary work contracts.

"Of course, we do not on principle want to be in opposition, on the contrary," Wagenknecht told dpa.

"But we are opposed to the policies of the other parties," she said, arguing that they had dismantled the social state over the past 20 years.

Staunchly anti-euro, Wagenknecht also more recently sought to sign up to the populist anti-migrant cause in a bid to draw voters away from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

At one point, she attacked Merkel over her liberal refugee stance, declaring the December terrorist attack in Berlin, in which 12 people were killed, to be a result of Merkel's "uncontrolled opening of the borders."

The Tunsian-born failed asylum seeker who perpetrated the attack, Anis Amri, had been living in Europe and Germany before Merkel's decision two years ago to open the nation's borders to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Hungary.

Wagenknecht's views on refugees sparked a furious debate in her party, culminating in one of her critics hurling a cream cake into her face at a party conference last year.

Last week's voter survey published by public broadcaster ZDF showed Merkel remaining as Germany's most popular political leader, with Wagenknecht coming in again at the bottom end of the scale.

Wagenknecht had in fact begun the year with hopes that she might be a minister after the September election in a new coalition headed by a resurgent SPD under the leadership of Martin Schulz.

Schulz's nomination in January as the SPD's challenger to Merkel sent his party's poll ratings rocketing, fuelling optimism in the centre-left party that it was poised to end Chancellor Merkel's 12-year rule.

But the dream of Schulz heading up Germany's first-ever national coalition between the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens quickly faded amid signs that it would not be backed by Germans of the former West.

Voters in the western state of Saarland effectively rejected any talk of a similar coalition in their region at a local election in March.

A short time later any threat that Schulz appeared to pose to Merkel seemed to disappear, as his polling numbers began to tank.

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