When Germany’s hard-left Die Linke party meet in Berlin at the weekend, the top item on their minds – if not the agenda – will be the split.
After years of backstabbing, identity crises and leadership battles, Russia’s invasion on Ukraine last February may have pushed the party beyond the point of no return.
The breaking point came when controversial MP Sahra Wagenknecht used a recent Bundestag address to attack war-related sanctions on Russia as an economic own goal, the cost of which is already being felt by Germany’s most vulnerable.
She called for an “end to economic sanctions: negotiate with Russia in Russia over a return of gas deliveries”.
“Yes of course the war in Ukraine is a crime, but how stupid is it to think we are punishing Putin in which millions of Germans fall into poverty and we destroy our industry?” she said to cheers from her own political allies – and from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
Her speech attracted hoots of derision from the government bench, with one Green MP calling her a “senior Kremlin lobbyist”.
Half of the Linke’s MPs had already boycotted the Bundestag sitting in protest over the decision to allow Dr Wagenknecht speak.
Afterwards, the party’s deputy leader Gösta Beutin accused Dr Wagenknecht of a “perpetrator-victim-reversal” while three MPs demanded her exclusion from the parliamentary party.
In an open letter they said that, by playing “the distributive injustice in Germany off against the attack on the Ukraine population, she has played into Putin’s hands and wasted her speaking time with far-right populist platitudes”.
When a series of prominent members handed back their membership book, party leaders rushed this week to salvage the situation before regional weekend conferences.
They reiterated Linke support for the economic sanctions against Russia, dismissed the nationalist streaks in Dr Wagenknecht’s address and agreed that only MPs who back the party line will speak for the Linke in the Bundestag.
For many, though, this is an ineffective sticking plaster on a deepening gash in the Linke parliamentary party between a pragmatic majority and a hard-left Wagenknecht minority.
Thursday’s compromise has kept Dr Wagenknecht inside the party and, critics say, left the political timebomb ticking.
One senior member predicts the prominent MP will depart with her supporters at what one called “the moment when she can cause the maximum political damage”.
That was the strategy taken by Dr Wagenknecht’s husband Oskar Lafontaine, a former Social Democrat finance minister and Linke co-founder, in his home state of Saarland.
Quitting the party saw it lose 10 percentage points in polls, putting it outside parliament in the small southwestern German state.
A departure of Dr Wagenknecht and her allies in the Bundestag would trigger a greater tremor: the Linke needs to lose just three MPs to be stripped of its parliamentary party status, with related speaking and financial privileges.
An opinion poll on Wednesday revealed the Linke is down to just 4 per cent in polls, a long way from its best result of 11.9 per cent in 2009 and one point below the hurdle for Bundestag representation.
That poll appeared a day after Dr Wagenknecht went on a renewed rhetorical offensive on a television talk show.
“We don’t help Ukraine when we break our industrial back . . . that is madness,” she said, adding that “seldom have I received so much positive feedback from the public for a Bundestag speech as with this one”.
While 2,700 Linke members have signed a petition demanding her removal from the party, Dr Wagenknecht said some 6,000 party members have signed a counter-petition supporting her.
Linke parliamentary party leader Dietmar Bartsch has insisted his “party will stay together” – but criticised his controversial colleague’s position.
“Sahra Wagenknecht condemned the war in her speech,” he said, “but she should have done it more clearly”.
As winter approaches, and fears over energy bills grow, Russia’s war on Ukraine has divided Germany down old west-east lines.
Some 66 per cent of western Germans favour maintaining sanctions against Russia, compared with 42 per cent of easterns. A third of easterners in an RTL/Forsa poll favour lifting all sanctions, compared with just 14 per cent in the west.