Monday, 6 June 2011

Europe's left continues to disappear

Yet another centre-left European government was ousted yesterday as the Portuguese voted overwhelmingly for the country's conservatives. Prime Minister Jose Socrates' Socialists, who have been in power since 2005, received just 28% of the vote. The centre-right party, bizarrely named the 'Social Democrats' (a legacy of Portugal's desire to avoid conservative-sounding names reminiscent of the dictatorship) got 37% of the vote, just short of an overall majority. They will form a coalition with the further right People's Party who polled at 11%.

"Centre-right wins in _____" is becoming a familiar headline for European Monday mornings. Conservative governments are re-elected, while centre-left governments are voted out. The left hasn't won an election here since the Socialists took power in Greece in 2009. With the Portuguese Socialists gone, this leaves the EU with only five centre-left governments - Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Slovenia and Spain. Compare this to the 19 governments controlled by the centre-right - plus three controlled by the right-leaning free-market Liberals.

Given the disastrous local election results for Spain's Socialists two weeks ago one can assume they will fall from power in the country's general election next year, if not earlier. This will leave the left with essentially no presence in Europe. It is an unprecedented situation in modern European history - the first time since the advent of widespread Democracy that the European left has had no voice.

What has left the Socialists so castrated in Europe at the moment? Bizarrely the economic crisis, seen by many as a failure of free-market capitalism and conservative ideology, has spurred Europeans to vote overwhelmingly for the right. To understand why one must keep in mind that in Europe the global economic crisis spurred two additional crisies - the debt crisis and the currency crisis.

Governments on both sides of the political spectrum behaved badly during the early part of the new millennium - whether it was the runaway borrowing and spending of Labour in the UK or the conservatives cooking the books and lying about their financial health in Greece. The global economic crisis made that house of cards fall in on itself. Now the focus is on one thing - reducing the debt of some of the worst-hit economies to prevent the EU's common currency from collapsing. This, the powers that be have decided, must involve austerity measures to massively cut Europe's social welfare systems. Since such austerity has been the long-term desire of Europe's right for decades, voters have turned to them to make the cuts they are convinced need to be made.

Of course that is only one explanation for the current situation, another could be that these things are cyclical and Europe just happens to be going through a right-leaning period during this crisis. After all, just six years ago the centre-left was a powerful force in Europe that held the governments of Germany and Britain. Perhaps six years from now Europe could be back in that situation again.

But the 'cycle' argument doesn't quite jibe with history, because Europe's governments don't tend to be in sync when it comes to left-right divides. In fact, it is historically unprecedented for most of Europe's governments to be controlled by the same ideology at the same time. Post-war Europe has seen few pan-European ideological patterns like the one we're seeing today. Is it a sign of greater coordination and greater ideological unity that the whole of Europe seems to be endorsing one course of action, one ideological solution? From a pro-EU 'federalist' perspective, it could be seen as encouraging that Europe is now united behind the voice of austerity. Even for the Socialists, is it better to have Europe united on one track while it deals with the economic crisis than to have it divided between left and right, squabbling over the best course of action to take?

Given the depths to which they have sunk, this might be cold comfort for Europe's Socialists. But there are signs the tide could start turning next year. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's government is hanging by a thread following his party's defeat in his hometown of Milan last week - a regional election Berlusconi himself said would be a referendum on his leadership. And in France, president Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity is so low that re-election next year is going to be a difficult task even after the arrest of the opposition's most high-profile candidate. Yet in both countries the left is in such a state of disarray that it's hard to see how they could stage a successful campaign to retake the leadership.

These are dark times indeed for the left in Europe.


Captain Kid said...

Let's be honest: Portugal's economic crisis led to the situation that politics will be done in Brussels, New York and Frankfurt, not in Lisbon. The right's victory does not mean any practical political difference for the next 4 years. Any future Portuguese government will only sign what others decide. The austerity programs will lead to frustration and anger and in 4 years, the Portuguese voters will punish the right for it, even though a victory of the left would have meant the same.

You also forgot to mention Germany. It is very unlikely for Angela Merkel to be reelected in 2 years. Her party is loosing popularity and her minor partner, FDP, will probably not even get into the Assembly. The Greens are becoming stronger and stronger and they might even be stronger as the Social-democrats, meaning that they would choose the Kanzler.

jolyonwagg1 said...

The reasons are simple why there is a large swing to the right in many eurozone countries. The banking crisis was just the ignition that blew wide open the euro delusion.

There was a growing economic divide between north and southern Europe that cannot no longer be sweept under the carpet by Brussels and ECB. Basically the left's credibility as all but disappeared. Spending your way out of a debt problem does not work and the voters of Europe realize this now, and they don't need an academic or economist to explain it to them.

The European left know how to spend tax payers money, but they have never learnt or understood how to simulate economic growth and create real jobs, not government jobs, real jobs. That is there Achilles Heel,and the voters know this, after years of the lefts failed economic policies.

Brussels and the eurozone have to stop navel gazing and be aware of China and Brazil.We all now live in a global world, not just a European one?

Captain Kid said...

But the economic growth Germany is experiencing can be dated back to pre-Merkel times, when it was the Left that made the reforms needed.

This is just a North/South division, not a Left/Right division. It was the Conservatives who brought Greece into this situation, not the current Socialist government. It was Gordon Brown, a leftist, who did the most important steps to avoid a Europe-wide financial crisis even bigger than it turned out to be.

The (right-wing) austerity measures will only aggravate everything. This is what economists tell you.

Crapoto said...

This is an interesting point of view, despite the fact that it is too "EU focused".
"Now the focus is on one thing - reducing the debt of some of the worst-hit economies to prevent the EU's common currency from collapsing."

I am not sure this is the only reason. Considering the case of crisis, center-right governments have introduced "center left's measures" to answer the short-term issues (reflation, regulation, etc).
Then, understanding why people are voted for those political parties linked their use of pragmatism and their will to fight against immigration.
This question of "identity" responds to people concerns. In that point of view, center-left parties still don't have relevant view to put forward.

I recently read a good book dealing with this issue. It's in french, maybe a bit too sociological, but at least really interesting. "Voyage au bout de la Droite", by Gaƫl Brustier. Feel free to discover it ;-)