Germany in revolt: Iranian engineer joins new party to take on Olaf Scholz

Farmers blockade roads as upstart left-wing movement vows to challenge 'ineptitude' in government

Tractors block the western road to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on Monday at the start of a week-long protest against tax rises affecting farmers. AP
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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was facing a revolt on several fronts on Monday as angry farmers blockaded roads and an upstart new party vowed to take on the "ineptitude and arrogance" of Berlin's ruling class.

The new left-wing party unveiled an Iranian-born engineer, Shervin Haghsheno, as part of its leadership team as he revealed he was entering politics to "protect democracy" from decaying voter trust.

Train drivers are also going on strike in a week of unrest, which some fear will be exploited by extremists amid broad discontent at Mr Scholz’s government.

Monday dawned with a line of tractors blocking the road to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in sub-zero temperatures, with motorways jammed during rush hour across Germany.

The farmers are up in arms at a planned diesel tax rise by Mr Scholz’s government, which they say would raise food prices, worsen cost-of-living problems and threaten German agriculture.

The new party led by left-wing firebrand Sahra Wagenknecht voiced solidarity with the farmers as it unveiled its agenda in Berlin.

"Many people feel the same way in this country, even if many have not yet taken their anger to the streets," said Ms Wagenknecht, who is part-Iranian herself.

"They are living under a government that has no plan other than to take ever scarcer money from their pockets. They are living under a Chancellor who often seems lost for words, even when he gives long speeches.

"We have formed the new party so that we can overcome this mistaken politics, the ineptitude and arrogance in Berlin’s government district, which divides our country, squanders our future and endangers our democracy."

Her new movement, the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), is a splinter group from struggling party The Left, which descends from the ruling communists in the former East Germany where she grew up.

Political novice Mr Haghsheno, who was born in Tehran and moved to Germany aged 10, called for a return to diplomacy and detente in foreign policy as he was unveiled as a BSW deputy leader.

"As someone who remembers growing up in a country at war, I am shocked that our foreign and security policy is ever more orientated around Germany being involved in military operations," he said.

Mr Haghsheno, 48, spoke of failures in integration policy as he called for improved education and "rational policies" that restore voter trust.

New figures published on Monday revealed more than 350,000 people applied for asylum in Germany last year, a rise of 51 per cent. People from Syria accounted for more than 100,000 of the cases. Mr Scholz has been under pressure to stem the flow of arrivals.

"The majority has lost trust in these established parties," Mr Haghsheno said. "I, too, have lost trust in recent years."

The tax on farmers is meant to raise money after judges blew a €60 billion ($65.65 billion) hole in the budget by ruling ministers could not repurpose Covid-19 funds, in an embarrassment for Mr Scholz.

An offer to slow the tax change until 2026 has failed to quell the rural revolt, with the German Farmers’ Association saying it is fighting for “more appreciation” as well as jobs and incomes.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has campaigned heavily on the costs of green measures, said it supports the farmers “taking to the streets representing large parts of society”.

The farmers insist they do not want right-wing extremists to “co-opt our protest for their vile objectives” but the increasingly bitter mood has led to fears of radicalisation.

In one ugly incident last week, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck was harassed by rural protesters as he disembarked a ferry, prompting much concern about the health of democratic debate in Germany.

"We cannot allow extremists to hijack this insecurity,” Mr Habeck said on Monday as he warned of "revolutionary fantasies" among the protests.

Right-wing extremists are hoping for a “Day X scenario” in which the state loses control and a new totalitarian regime can be installed, said senior liberal MP Konstantin Kuhle, referring to alleged plots uncovered by security services.

The AfD and other far-right groups are using messenger apps to “mix and consolidate the most diverse causes into a form of political general strike”, Mr Kuhle said.

The Infratest dimap pollster published a survey last week showing 82 per cent of Germans were dissatisfied with the government, with Mr Scholz's personal ratings at their lowest ebb yet. Asked whether they saw the situation in Germany with confidence or concern, 83 per cent chose the latter.

The AfD is riding a high in the polls, with Ms Wagenknecht positioning her new party as an anti-establishment alternative without far-right trappings. Mr Scholz's Social Democrats are on a mere 14 per cent.

Updated: January 08, 2024, 2:29 PM