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State of the Left

30 May 2014
State of the Left

Fragile Europe, Fragmented Left

The dust is still settling after the European elections of last weekend with the horse-trading over the Commission presidency and the populist challengers in France and Britain still dominating much of the news agenda.

The elections delivered stark warning signals of old nationalisms stirring across the continent; but, overall, the picture is not irreversibly bleak for the European project.  In countries like Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, reluctant but relatively solid pro-European majorities have come through. Indeed, arch-populist Geert Wilders’ party finished in third place, losing almost 30 per cent of the support his party had five years ago. The same holds for countries hit particularly hard by the crisis like Italy,Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the status quo won't do: urgent reforms and political leadership are required as the EU remains a “wounded giant with feet of clay”. National political leaders are going to have to take the lead in mending the union – in this regard, the situation in France is deeply worrying. 

What about the State of the Left after the elections? Despite the fact that EU contests suffer from low turn-out and second order syndrome, the opportunity to cast a ‘protest’ vote offers some interesting insights on societal trends – and the implications they have for electoral coalition-building.

Political fragmentation appears to be growing. For example, in Sweden, where European politics is a comparatively rational affair, the stand-out result ahead of the September General Election was that back-to-back election winner Fredrik Reinfeldt saw his Moderate party score a lowly 13.5%. Yet the Swedish Social Democrats did not return a big score; they won 24.5%, with the Greens, the Left party and a new Feminist Initiative siphoning a combined 27% of the vote. 

As Katrine Kielos observes, you can see a more pronounced split in the electorate: “on one hand, a wave of young progressive voters attracted to lifestyle parties like the Greens or the Feminists. On the other hand, a group outside of the bigger cities that feels increasingly left behind (tending to vote for the xenophobic Swedish Democrats).” Broadly similar trends are at play in the Netherlands, where the winners were the social-liberal D66 party, with the Dutch Labour party falling to 6th place in the polls. Internal splits in the French Socialist party are also a real threat to their governing agenda. 

What’s more, in the UK, the success of UKIP has opened a debate on the centre-left about whether to adopt a harder line on immigration and Europe to win back ‘left behind’ voters, who mainly tend to be old, white and male; or to stop over-obsessing with UKIP and focus on urban, young, female and immigrant votes.

Despite these coalition dilemmas in some European countries, the outstanding success of Matteo Renzi in Italy shows what bold, energetic leadership can achieve. His historic result puts him alongside Angela Merkel and few others in the annals of leaders who have scored over 40% in the crisis years. He is the first ever Italian centre-left leader to do this - and no Italian party has hit these heights since 1958. 

Alongside his breathless reform agenda and campaign style, his simple message was "hope against fear".

It will be a fascinating political achievement if he can beat the anti-incumbency trend and hold his popularity over the coming year.

Our political observers

"France is entering a dangerous period, in which the mainstream centre parties lack the trust of voters and appear unable to adopt clear positions or produce strong leaders. What is in question is the ability of France to modernise itself and escape the temptation to withdraw."
By Gérard Grunberg
“There is no benefit from veering to the right to try to get votes you won’t win. Urbanisation - which is the single greatest global force – makes social democrats of all of us… It was not just London that rejected UKIP but Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Why? Because they face the future.”
By John McTernan
"Renzi’s winning message was 'hope against fear'. Looking ahead, the new prime minister's strategic goal on Europe is probably to replace French President Hollande as Germany’s privileged partner for intergovernmental negotiations, becoming the representative of all the countries that fear that the European 'straitjacket' is choking them".
By Mattia Guidi
"The big story of the election was the unprecedented collapse of Conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's party. Since 1979, the Conservative party has always been one of the two biggest parties in any national election. Not this time."
By Katrine Kielos
"A closer look at the European election results reveals some worrying signals, especially from the perspective of the big parties CDU/CSU and SPD. The rise of the AfD and the lack of politicisation leave the European elections in Germany with a stale after-taste."
By Michael Miebach
"The bleached blond nationalist Geert Wilders lost almost 30 per cent of the support he had five years ago. Wilders’ solutions (getting rid of the EU and euro, closing down the borders) were far too extreme for the average Dutch voter."
By René Cuperus
"The two main parties together lost more than 5 million voters and dropped to a combined 48% of the vote marking the most fragmented distribution of votes witnessed in almost forty years of democracy in Spain. But they did not lose out to populists on the right, but to new leftist parties."
By Juan Rodríguez-Teruel
"The triumph of the populist People’s Party shows that their rise  is more than a temporary phenomenon. The campaign was marked by intensive discussions on social dumping and welfare tourism... All in all, the signal is that the Danish population fears for the future of welfare and the influence on it from the EU institutions."
By Kristian Weise
"Following a surge in support for the populist nationalist Sinn Fein as well as independents and smaller left-wing parties, Ireland's old certainties are crumbling... support for the EU is no longer the blank cheque it once was."
By Eoin O’Malley
"The elections saw victory for the Portuguese Socialist party just three years after a socialist-led government turned to the EU for a bailout. They scored 31.5% of the vote and a four-point lead over the right-wing coalition, a result which sits in stark contrast to the results of the Spanish and Greek socialists."
By Hugo Coelho
"The Social Democrats fourth place finish continues their steady decline of recent years. However, with a low turnout of only 40.9%, it is questionable to draw conclusions about the Finnish political landscape. After all, the EP remains far from the everyday life of Europe’s north-eastern corner".
By Mikko Majander
"Ten years after joining the EU, the European elections seem to indicate that Poland’s party system has stabilised in a way which enables various types of right-wing groups to achieve almost 80% of support."
By Michal Syska
"In an election shaped by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Latvian voters flocked to support their pro-EU government, but the election result in one of the EU’s newest member states was more one of realpolitik than Europhilia."
By Daunis Auers
"Though the populist far right FPÖ increased its vote share by one third, its voters protested against the government parties and their political actions, rather than the EU itself. It campaigned for a 'Europe of Fatherlands' but, most importantly, did not demand to leave the EU all together."
By Sylvia Kritzinger
“For those countries worst hit by the blight, the results must be recognised for what they are ‒ a crisis of confidence in the national political class and the failure of democratic mainstream parties to find the language to talk to their electors...”
By Julian Priestley

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