German left wing ‘Stand up’ movement vows to win back far-right voters

Leftist politicians on Tuesday pledged to address the concerns of poor people in Germany and win back working-class voters who have drifted to the xenophobic far-right.

German left wing 'Stand up' movement vows to win back far-right voters
Sahra Wagenknecht officially unveils the Stand Up (Aufstehen) movement at a press conference. Photo: DPA

Sahra Wagenknecht, a divisive Socialist leader of the far-left Die Linke party, and other co-founders presented the 'Stand Up' (Aufstehen) alliance a week after extremist mobs in east Germany attacked foreigners and noisily protested against Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policies.

Wagenknecht, 49, deplored the neo-Nazis making Hitler salutes and the ugly outbursts of racist hatred, but argued that many citizens had followed the call of the far-right Pegida movement and anti-immigration AfD party out of frustration over their social conditions.

“I am sick of abandoning the streets to Pegida and the far right,” she told a Berlin press conference, launching the cross-party populist movement which she said had won more than 100,000 followers since its online debut several weeks ago.

“Many people joined not because they hate foreigners but because they feel left behind,” she said about the rallies in Chemnitz in the formerly communist East, a region which still lags the west economically almost 30 years after reunification.

Populist campaign

The new leftist movement has been compared to the populist campaigns of US Senator Bernie Sanders and Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but also to left-wing social movements in Spain and Italy.

It is the brainchild of Wagenknecht and her husband Oskar Lafontaine, 74, a firebrand socialist, ex-finance minister and defector from the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

As 'Stand up' is, at least initially, a movement rather than a registered political party, anyone can join – the main target groups being disenchanted followers of the SPD and Greens.

The movement's declared goal is to counter the “neoliberal policies” of Merkel's centrist coalition government and fight for secure jobs and pensions, environmental protection and “a true democracy not ruled by banks, corporations and lobbyists”.

Its website declares boldly that “no politician, no party will solve our problems if we don't do it ourselves”.

Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the three leftist parties all reject the plan, arguing it further divides and weakens them. Linke chairman Bernd Riexinger attacked Wagenknecht for splitting her own party.

No 'open borders'

Wagenknecht, who hails from the former communist East, is a polarizing TV talk show regular, but sometimes awkward with voters. She has courted controversy by criticizing the European Union and defending Vladimir Putin's Russia.

She has also broken with the left's “open borders” orthodoxy on immigration by arguing that “economic immigrants” take jobs from low-income Germans and strain public services.

However, unlike the anti-Islam AfD, she defends Germany's asylum law for those escaping war, persecution and human rights abuses in their homeland.

The idea of a German cross-party leftist alliance has repeatedly come up and been dismissed – in large part because of Die Linke's uncompromising hard-left positions, such as wanting to abolish NATO.

In last year's elections, which saw the shock entry of the AfD into the Bundestag, combined support for the left parties dropped below 40 percent.

The dispirited SPD reluctantly joined Merkel's conservatives again as junior coalition partner, further damaging morale.

Among the co-founders of 'Stand Up' was the SPD's Simone Lange, who this year ran as a relative unknown for the party's leadership and scored a surprise 27 percent, seen as an expression of discontent within the party.

Wagenknecht said she was impressed with initial support for “Stand Up” and declared herself open to hand over to other leaders in future if it proves a success.

A voter poll conducted by the Civey institute for news portal t-online found that 62 percent of respondents do not believe the movement has a long-term future.

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Could Merkel’s Christian Democrats really work with the far-right AfD?

Mainstream parties have ruled out working with the far-right AfD. But now CDU officials in Thuringia say talks with the anti-immigration party shouldn't be ruled out. Is the tide turning?

Could Merkel’s Christian Democrats really work with the far-right AfD?
The CDU's Mike Mohring (front) and the AfD's Björn Höcke on the Thuringia election night. Photo: DPA

Just over a week after the election in the eastern German state of Thuringia last week, politicians in the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have called for their party to be willing to talk with the anti-establishment Alternative for Germany. 

CDU bosses in Thuringia previously rejected the idea of coalition talks with the AfD. 

But on Monday an open letter signed by 17 local CDU officials and reported on by the Ostthüringer Zeitung, urges the party to start “open-ended talks” with the AfD.  They consider it unthinkable that “almost a quarter of the voters” in Thuringia “should remain outside the talks”.

It echoes calls last week from Michael Heym, the deputy head of the Thuringian CDU faction, who had suggested the concept of a coalition between the CDU, the AfD and the pro-business Free Democrats.

“You don't do democracy a favour by alienating a quarter of the electorate,” Heym said after last week's election.

According to the newspaper, the appeal by the CDU officials does not explicitly mention the AfD. However, it suggests that the CDU should be open to talks with the party known for its anti-immigration views, as well as “all democratically elected parties” including the far-left Die Linke, who won the election.

A decision for or against working with a party should only be made after open-ended discussions, the letter said. Among the signatories is CDU state parliament member Jörg Kellner.

READ ALSO: What does the far-right's success in Thuringia mean for Germany?


The CDU, led by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and with Angela Merkel as Chancellor, suffered a humiliating result in the election after it was pushed into third place by the AfD.

The AfD surged into second place with 23.4 percent, more than doubling its share of the vote since the last state election in 2014, while the CDU tumbled down to 21.8 percent, from 33.5 percent in 2014. 

It would be extremely controversial for the CDU to cooperate with the AfD and has been previously ruled out at the federal level.

Furthermore, the Thuringia AfD is led by Björn Höcke, who heads a stridently nationalist group called Flügel (the Wing) and has been accused of inflammatory rhetoric. During the campaign, his CDU rival in Thuringia, Mike Mohring, called him a “Nazi”.

However, the CDU is struggling to hold on to disillusioned voters, especially after Merkel’s decision to keep the borders open in 2015 during the height of the refugee crisis. This action moved the party more to the centre.

There's also another debate on the direction of the CDU in Thuringia which would also be a controversial move.

The Left (Die Linke), led by state premier Bodo Ramelow, won the election, scooping 31 percent of the vote. The party wants to lead a coalition, as it had done previously, but it’s proving extremely difficult to find a majority.

The CDU previously ruled out working with the Left, but Thuringia CDU leader Mohring said he was open to talks with the party's local leader Ramelow.

Political Scientist Werner Patzelt previously told The Local if the centre-right CDU worked with the far-left Die Linke party, it would be the “kiss of death” for the CDU.

Meanwhile, SPD Secretary General Lars Klingbeil raised concerns over the letter calling for talks with the AfD.

He warned that the “firewall to the right” in the CDU was “getting more and more cracks”. He called on CDU party leader Kramp-Karrenbauer to intervene.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the AfD surge in regional German elections