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Why Europe’s Center-Left Keeps Losing Elections

Italy, Germany & the EU’s Future

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 19, 2018


More than a quarter of a century ago, much of the European center-left made a course change, edging away from its working class base, accommodating itself to the globalization of capital, and handing over the post World War II social contract to private industry. Whether it was the “New Labour” of Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schroder’s “Agenda 2010” in Germany, social democracy came to terms with its traditional foe, capitalism.


Today, that compact is shattered, the once powerful center-left a shadow of its former self, and the European Union—the largest trading bloc on the planet—is in profound trouble.


In election after election over the past year, social democratic parties went down to defeat, although center-right parties also lost voters. Last year’s election in the Netherlands saw the Labor Party decimated, though its conservative coalition partner also took a hit. In France, both the Socialist Party and the traditional conservative parties didn’t even make the runoffs. September’s elections in Germany saw the Social Democrats (GPD) take a pounding, along with their conservative alliance partners, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. And Italy’s center-left Democratic Party was decisively voted out of power.


It would be easy to see this as a shift to the right. The neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has 92 seats in the Bundestag. The Dutch anti-Muslim Party for Freedom picked up five seats. The extreme rightist National Front made the runoffs in France. The racist, anti-immigrant Northern League took 17.5 percent of the Italian vote and is in the running to form a government.


But the fall of the center-left has more to do with the 1990s course change than with any rightward shift by the continent. As the center-left accommodated itself to capital, it eroded its trade union base. In the case of New Labour, Blair explicitly distanced the Party from the unions that had been its backbone since it was founded in 1906.


In Germany, the Social Democrats began rolling back the safety net, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and undermining labor codes that had guaranteed workers steady jobs at decent wages.


The European Union—originally touted as a way to end the years of conflict that had embroiled the continent in two world wars— became a vehicle for enforcing economic discipline on its 27 members. Rigid fiscal rules favored countries like Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, while straitjacketing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, particularly in times of economic crisis.


Center-left parties all over Europe bailed out banks and financial speculators, while inflicting ruinous austerity measures on their own populations to pay for it. It became difficult for most people to distinguish between the policies of the center-right and the center-left.


Both backed austerity as a strategy for the debt crisis. Both weakened trade unions through “reforms” that gave employers greater power. Short-term contracts—so-called “mini jobs”—with lower wages and benefits replaced long-term job security, a strategy that fell especially hard on young people.


The recent Italian elections are a case in point. While the center-left Democratic Party (DP) bailed out several regional banks, its Labor Minister recommended that young Italians emigrate to find jobs. It was the Five Star Movement that called for a guaranteed income for poor Italians and sharply criticized the economics of austerity.


In contrast, the DP called for “fiscal responsibility” and support for the EU, hardly a program that addressed inequality, economic malaise, and youth unemployment. Euro-skeptic parties took 55 percent of the vote, while the Democrats tumbled from 41 percent four years ago to 19 percent.


In the German elections, the SPD did raise the issue of economic justice, but since the Party had been part of the governing coalition, voters plainly did not believe it. The Party’s leader Martin Schulz, , called for a “united states of Europe,” not exactly a barnburner phrase when the EU is increasingly unpopular.


Breaking a pre-election promise to go into opposition, the SPD has re-joined Merkel’s “Grand Coalition.” While the SPD landed some important cabinet posts, history suggests the Party will pay for that decision. It also allows the neo-Nazi AfG to be the official opposition in the Bundestag, handing it a bully pulpit.


The unwillingness of Europe’s social democrats to break from the policies of accommodation has opened an economic flank for the right to attack, and the center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Both the Italian and German center-left avoided the issue during their elections, ceding the issue to the right.


Europe does have an immigration problem, but it is not the right’s specter of “job-stealing, Muslim rapists” overrunning the continent. EU members—most of all Italy—have a shrinking and increasingly aged population. If the continent does not turn those demographics around—and rein in “mini jobs” that discourage young workers from having children—it is in serious long-term trouble. There simply will not be enough workers to support the current level of pensions and health care.


In any case, many of the “immigrants” are EU members—Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Romanians—looking for work in England and Germany because their own austerity-burdened economies can’t offer them a decent living.


The center-left did not buy into the right’s racism, but neither did it make the point that immigrants are in the long-term interests of Europe. Nor did it do much to challenge the foreign policy of the EU and NATO that actively aids or abets wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, wars that fuel millions of those immigrants.


One of the most telling critiques that Five Star aimed at the DP was that the Party supported the overthrow of the Libyan government and the consequent collapse of Libya as a functioning nation. Most the immigrants headed for Italy come from, or through, Libya.


When center-left parties embraced socially progressive policies, voters supported them. In Portugal two left parties formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to get the economy back on track, lower the jobless rate, and roll back many of the austerity measures enforced on the country by the EU. In recent local elections, voters gave them a ringing endorsement.


Jeremy Corbyn took the British Labour Party to the left with a program to re-nationalize railroads, water, energy and the postal service, and Labour is now running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Polls also indicate that voters like Labour’s program of green energy, improving health care, and funding education and public works.


The examples of Portugal and Britain argue that voters are not turning away from left policies, but from the direction that the center left has taken over the past quarter century.


The formulas of the right—xenophobia and nationalism—will do little to alleviate the growing economic inequality in Europe, nor will they address some very real existential problems like climate change. The real threat to the Dutch doesn’t comes from Muslims, but the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, sometime in the next few decades, will send the North Sea over the Netherland’s dikes.


When Europe emerged from the last world war, the left played an essential role in establishing a social contract that guaranteed decent housing, health care and employment for the continent’s people. There was still inequality, exploitation, and greed—it is, after all, capitalism—but there was also a compact that did its best to keep the playing field level. In the words of Mette Frederiksen, a leading Danish social democrat, “to save capitalism from itself.”


The Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan government in Washington broke that compact. Taxes were shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the working class and poor. Public services were privatized, education defunded, and the safety net shredded.


If the center-left is to make a comeback, it will have to re-discover its roots and lure voters away from xenophobia and narrow nationalism with a program that improves peoples’ lives and begins the difficult task of facing up to what capitalism has wrought on the planet.




Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlempireseries.wordpress.com






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Europe’s Elections and The Barbarians

Europe’s Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 17, 2017


Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming: ”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The Right was on the march, the Left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.


It’s a grand image, a sort of a politics as the “Game of Thrones,” but the reality is considerably more complex. There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: rightwing parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.


But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war, and treachery.


The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders rightwing, racist Party for Freedom (PVV) faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes did not break the gates (but they did pick up five seats). Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics and, most pointedly the consequences of abandoning principles for power.


The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the Left Green’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.


Rutte’s coalition partner, the left Labour Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years Labour has gone along with Rutte’s program of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending, and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.


The VVD also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” is not what voters want either . VVD is still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament.


There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center. What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers, and parties on the left and center left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.


Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional rightwing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon. The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.


With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.


If you are is attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.


Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by the EU’s globalism policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39 percent of 18 to 24 year olds, compared with 21 percent for Macron and 21 percent for Fillon.


Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he has been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly to the young and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to those of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programs sound much like Donald Trump’s: cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers, and give tax cuts to the wealthy.


Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“On Our Way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation, and he is young, 39, telegenic, and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it is not clear there is a there, there.


Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs. Macron runoff, with Macon coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50 percent of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.


There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38 percent of Fillon’s supporters say they will jump to Le Pen—two million voters—and 7 percent of Hamon voters and 11 percent of Melenchon backers would shift to Le Pen as well. What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45 percent of Melenchon voters say they will not vote if Macron is the candidate. Some 26 percent of Fillon’s voters and 21 percent of Hamon’s votes would similarly abstain.


Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win—the Front has never won more than six million nationally—but if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brixit vote.


If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There is no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union, and if they leave, that will be the huge trade organization’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.


Germany will hold national elections, Sept. 24, but the story there is very different than the one being played out in France. The government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats(SD). The alliance has been a disaster for the SD, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20 percent.


But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the Chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has drained CDU and CSU voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.


The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU President, Martin Schultz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The SD is now neck and neck with the CDU/CSU front, and some polls show Schultz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schultz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the Chancellor’s CDU/CSU alliance tops the polls at 34 percent, the Social Democrats are polling at 32 percent and climbing.


Schultz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers, and almost 20 percent of workers age 25 to 34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.


In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40 percent of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.


That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the SD, the left Die Linke Party, and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8 percent. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: the SD and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organization.


But there is a model out there that gives hope.


Portugal is currently run by a three-party center-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt, and NATO membership, but for the time being they have decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.

And then there are the Italians.


While Italy has not scheduled elections, the defeat of Democratic Party leader and then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.


Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It is the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.


Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) still tops the polls, but only just, and it has fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd. Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several rightwing parties in the European Parliament. It applauded the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.


Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the Party’s Mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running—in truth, the ancient Romans found it a daunting task—and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.


The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13 percent, and the racist., xenophobic Northern League at 11.5 percent. The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot with protestors tossing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.


There are informal talks going on about uniting the parties. Burlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.


There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5 percent. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.


If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU, and there is no guarantee that Italians—battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group—won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.


Predicting election outcomes are tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being cases in point. The most volatile of upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but, even if Merkel survives, the center-right will be much diminished and the left will be stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.


The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy, and a robust debate is not a bad thing. None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalization of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?


In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek economic minister and one of the founders of the left organization DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”


The “Deal” has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centering more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include:

  • “Large-scale” investment in green technology.
  • Guaranteed employment with a living wage
  • An EU-wide anti-poverty fund.
  • Universal basic income.
  • Anti-eviction protection.


None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The rightwing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.


Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her neo-conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education and social services with the slogan, “There is no other choice.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.


But there is a choice, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.
























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