By Robert Bechert
Elections to the European parliament saw voters revolt against government and traditional parties. While there were some gains for the left, media headlines were dominated by victories for the Front National in France, and UKIP in Britain.
In country after country, May’s elections to the European parliament saw governments and traditional parties defeated. Many were unnerved by the revolt as new political forces gained while older forces declined. These elections, albeit on a low turnout, illustrated how Europe is being shaken up by the consequences of the world economic crisis that started in 2008. Across the continent living standards have fallen, and in some cases collapsed. Huge protests and class struggles have erupted in some countries. This has contributed to the mounting tensions within the eurozone and European Union (EU). The growth of eurosceptic and anti-austerity forces will increase these divisions.
Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right Front National grabbed the headlines by topping the poll in France. In Britain, the Conservatives were, for the first time in their over 180 years’ history, pushed down to third place as the right-populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) topped the polls. This, alongside gains for other far-right or neo-fascist parties – in countries like Austria, Denmark, Greece, Hungary and Sweden – plus the success of right-wing forces in the Flemish part of Belgium and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, set the headlines that Europe was turning to the right – notwithstanding the gains by anti-austerity or left forces in countries like Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Elections give a snapshot of developments, but not necessarily a complete picture. This is especially true of these elections to this so-called parliament, which only has very limited powers and is generally seen as a gravy train. One result is that European elections usually have even lower levels of participation than national elections, except where they are held in conjunction with other votes, as in Belgium where voting is also compulsory. Nevertheless, the results illustrate some of the features of the current situation in Europe.
Six years after the onset of the biggest international crisis of the capitalist system since the 1930s, voting took place against the background of continuing economic and social turmoil, with mass unemployment across much of Europe, and a few countries experiencing a shaky recovery. The election also took place at a time when there are few large-scale struggles or protests taking place and when, in most countries, there are no major political parties standing out in opposition to the continuing austerity. Despite this May’s elections showed the growing mistrust in, alienation from and opposition to national governments and the EU in many countries.
Years of falling living standards have undermined confidence in the present capitalist order. The results were in line with a recent survey that showed that, in May 2013, trust in the EU was 31%, down from 57% in 2007. While this was low, trust in national governments was even lower at 25%, compared with 41% seven years ago. This is especially true in countries which have suffered hardest in the crisis.
Governments which were in power at the start of the crisis have been defeated and their replacements have also been undermined. Thus, in Spain, the combined share of the vote of the conservative Popular Party and former social-democratic PSOE, the two parties which have dominated government since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s, collapsed from 80.9% in 2009 to 49.1%. The left-wing Podemos (We can), formed only a few months before this election, came fourth with just under 8%. The United Left (IU) increased its vote from 3.7% to very nearly 10% and came third.
In Ireland, the Labour Party saw a huge drop in votes as a result of its participation in the pro-austerity government, while anti-austerity forces, Sinn Féin especially, gained. Like PSOE leader, Alfredo Rubalcaba, Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, resigned as Labour Party leader after these results. The support for the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) in the simultaneous European vote and Dublin West parliamentary by-election showed the basis it has built by fighting austerity and campaigning for a socialist alternative.
In other countries the developments are not so clearly to the left. In the Netherlands, the Labour Party (PvdA), which is part of the governing coalition, won just 9.4%. Thirty years ago it got 33.7%. The PvdA’s vote was also a pale shadow of the 24.8% it won two years ago in the last general election. Its euro vote was lower than the Socialist Party’s 9.6%. However, the SP does not have the same clear socialist policies as the CWI-affiliated socialist parties. While this vote was higher than the 7.1% it had in the last euro elections in 2009, it was slightly less than the 9.7% it scored in the 2012 general election, and was well below the 16.6% it had won in 2006. But the existence of a left force opposing austerity helped limit the populist far right as Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) fell, but still was a significant 13.3%.
It was only in a minority of countries, including Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Spain, that anti-austerity or left forces made significant gains. Even in Greece, where Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) topped the poll, it did not do so because it had strengthened its position since the two general elections in 2012 but because of a drop in support for the ruling New Democracy. At the same time, strong backing continued for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn.
While the relative stability and a higher turnout in Germany allowed Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) to increase their vote, but not percentage, the right-wing eurosceptic Alliance for Germany (AfD), formed last year, won 7%. Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the CSU, suffered a massive drop in their vote as the AfD gained. While Die Linke (The Left) increased its vote by just under 200,000, its percentage dropped slightly to 7.4%.
In Italy, the less than 100 days old government under Matteo Renzi did well. His New Labour-style Democratic Party (PD) gained 40.8%, its best ever percentage. This was a reflection of widespread desperation with the country’s dire situation. Italy has lost 25% of its industrial capacity since the crisis started in 2008. Instead of gaining support, the 5 Star Movement (M5S) slightly lost support. Nonetheless, the M5S could maintain itself for a while on the basis of disillusion with Renzi when it sets in and a continued absence of a viable workers’ or left alternative.
In the short term, there is a hope that Renzi could provide a way out of Italy’s deep crisis, something helped by the implementation of an €80 a month tax cut targeted at those earning between €18,000 to €23,500 per month. This popularity may not last long, however, as Renzi plans to use his victory to pursue a neo-liberal programme. It is far from certain that he will be able to implement such policies.
The general trend was for governments to lose votes. In Sweden, prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s conservative Moderates dropped into third place with 13.6%, behind the Social Democrats and Greens. In Portugal, the crisis was reflected in the right wing government parties getting a total of 27.7% and a surge for the previously tiny conservative environmentalist Earth (MPT) whose vote jumped from 0.6% to 7.1%.
Where parties nominally of the left are in government, it was generally the right-wing, often far-right, which gained. France is the most striking example. François Hollande’s Parti Socialiste (PS) continued its sharp decline and the far-right Front National (FN) became the largest party. This further accelerated the tensions and rivalries within the conservative UMP.
Similarly, in Denmark, it was the right-wing People’s Party (DF) that gained most from the unpopularity of the ruling Social Democrats, whose 19.1% vote was massively down on the 24.8% they received in the 2011 general election. With this loss in support it is no wonder the selfie-loving premier, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is encouraging talk of her getting a top job in the EU. What was noticeable in France and Denmark was that parties to the left of the government there were unable to benefit significantly from the experience of nominally left parties being in office.
So does this mark a failure of the left at the time of the greatest economic crisis for 80 years? And will the right benefit from the rising anger? These questions are being asked repeatedly. While the challenge from the right needs to be answered, there is more than an element of anti-socialist propaganda when these questions are posed in the media. It is part of the ongoing campaign to present socialism as something old fashioned and out of date.
Failure of old ‘ex-left’
First of all, it has to be asked what is meant by the ‘left’. It is not simply a question of a party’s name. Today, there is a range of pro-capitalist parties which, for largely historical or electoral reasons, are called ‘socialist’, ‘social democrat’ or ‘labour’. They may once have stood for the interests of the working class, for socialism, even for socialist revolution. But, for decades, they have been led by pro-capitalist politicians who increasingly strove to transform these parties into completely pro-capitalist formations. This has meant that, when in government, they have ultimately defended the capitalist system even when, in the past, they implemented progressive individual reforms. Because of this degeneration, and their increasing loss of working-class roots, the question of forming new workers’ parties is on the agenda in most countries.
Therefore, the crisis facing so-called ‘left’ governments, like the PS in France, is actually not a failure of socialist policies. In many European countries it has been the misnamed ‘socialist’, ‘social democratic’ or ‘labour’ parties which have been instrumental in carrying out neoliberal attacks, as in Denmark and France, or have participated as junior partners in these attacks, as in Greece, Ireland and the Netherlands. These policies have undermined support among their traditional base and fail to attract younger people.
Initially, there was a leftward move in many countries as the crisis struck, with the banks and bankers being held responsible. Opposition to the idea that ‘ordinary people’ should pay for the crisis was widespread. In some countries, especially in southern Europe, there was an upturn in class struggle. Strikes and protests took place against austerity measures, particularly the diktats of the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the so-called bailouts.
At the same time, there were the developments like the Occupy movement and ‘indignados’ that ideologically or politically began to challenge the rule of the 1%, and sometimes capitalism itself. The 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also had a worldwide radicalising effect. For a time, Tahrir square was a symbol of revolt.
All of this provided the ingredients for the building of a powerful movement that could fight against the impacts of the crisis and challenge the capitalist system which had produced it. However, this development did not take place. There was no consistent anti-austerity policy by the main, pro-capitalist trade union leaders and, in most countries, no sizeable left or genuinely socialist political force that had the potential to build a movement that could challenge capitalism.
In Germany and elsewhere, the trade union leaders advocated that workers should accept sacrifices in order to hold onto their jobs. With the resumption of Germany’s strong exports it seemed to many workers that this policy had worked, albeit at the cost of continued stagnating or falling living standards. Once German exports start to suffer this will be undermined and a stormier period will begin.
In other EU countries there were many struggles, especially in Greece where there have been 36 general strikes since 2010. But these strikes, alongside thousands of other protests, were not part of a consistent campaign to mobilise support, not just against the attacks but also the system that caused this crisis. For many union leaders they were ways of letting off steam, and for them to claim that they were doing something. The result has been that the Greek population has seen a huge collapse in living standards and the very fabric of society. Wages are down 60%, unemployment is officially over 27%, and the New York Times reported that 800,000 to a million of those in work have gone unpaid for a month or longer, and that services like health and education are close to breakdown.
This was the background to the huge leap in Syriza’s support in Greece’s two 2012 general elections. Workers and youth, feeling that continual strikes were getting nowhere, switched to political action. In the campaign for the May 2012 general election, Syriza’s call for a ‘left government’ got an immense response. Its support leapt from 4.6% in 2009 to 16.8% and then, as the result was inconclusive, its tally rose to 26.9% in the election held the following month. But the Syriza leadership began to row back. The call for a ‘left government’ was widened to include pro-capitalist parties, and the leaders made clear they would attempt to work within capitalism. While, in this latest election, Syriza campaigned under the slogan “get rid of them”, it was not able to increase its support, although it became the largest party.
Right populists and the far-right
This is the background to the growth of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn. It won 536,400 votes, 9.4%, in the European election, compared with just 23,550 five years ago. In the first round of the local elections, held a week before the euros, it won 16.1% in Athens – however, in the wider Attica area that includes Athens, it gained 11.1%.
Like right-populist or far-right parties in other countries, Golden Dawn has been able to take up issues and propose racist and nationalist ‘answers’ to them. Its dramatic rise is a reflection of the depth of the Greek crisis and the inevitable political polarisation such a situation produces.
Young people are among those most affected by the crisis. Youth unemployment currently averages 23.5% across Europe, with 56% in Greece and 53% in Spain. The danger is that the competition for jobs undermines wages, further weakens trade unions and, in the context of free movement of labour, can create hostility between workers of different nationalities. In France, youth unemployment is around 23.5% and polls have shown that the FN has the largest amount of support, 26%, among 18- to 24-year-olds – compared with 16% for Left Front (Front de Gauche) leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The FN through a combination of social demands, hostility to the traditional politicians and nationalism – “politics of the French, for the French and with the French” – has built support. But the Left Front did not have a clear answer either politically or in its relations with Hollande’s coalition. While its vote rose by just 95,000 to 1,200,000 (6.3%), despite the abysmal record of the PS in government, the FN surged by 3,619,000 to 4,711,000 (24.85%).
At the same time, even this election showed that the large-scale rise of the right and far-right is not inevitable. To differing decrees, in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, left formations, even if with a limited programme, were able to limit the right’s gains. But this is not permanent. A failure by the left parties can open the door to the right. While the polarisation in Greece is partly the result of the crisis, it more fundamentally flows from the utter failure of formerly social-democratic Pasok, especially after its 2009 general election victory just as the crisis was unfolding. Then Pasok won 3,012,373 votes, 43.9%, while Golden Dawn, won only 9,636 (0.29%). Now Golden Dawn won more votes in the euros than Pasok’s Olive Tree alliance.
The far-right was also present in central and eastern Europe, where the neo-fascist Jobbik in Hungary won almost the same percentage. Its actual votes dropped by over 70,000 as turnout plunged to 28.97%. The lowest turnout was in Slovakia, with 13%. Even in Croatia, the EU’s newest member, it was just 25.25%.
Notwithstanding the low turnout, these results are a warning to those sections of the ruling classes that back what they call the EU ‘project’. The strengthening of eurosceptic forces, mainly on the right, and the renewed growth of anti-austerity and left forces in some countries, reinforces the underlying tensions within the EU, especially in the eurozone.
Crisis not gone away
Just after the election, the Financial Times quoted François Heisbourg, the French chairman of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. He said that the euro crisis “was ‘a cancer in remission’ – a threat capable of re-emerging in the future”. It can be hit by all manner of shocks.
The threatened slowdown in world trade would, at a time of widespread austerity, be a big blow to countries’ hopes of exporting their way out of crisis, and would undermine Germany’s position. The Ukrainian emergency threatens Austria’s banks, and further western sanctions against Russia would hit German interests. Within the eurozone, France and Italy are pleading for more flexibility in the demands for austerity and hope for a cheaper euro, something that may come about as the ECB attempts to avoid deflation developing.
It is clear that the eurozone banking system remains weak. Already the ECB has pumped €1 trillion into the eurozone financial system to prevent a collapse. But, in early April, the Financial Times reported that a further €700 billion is needed, while the IMF warned that eurozone banks’ problems pose a threat to global financial stability. Now there is discussion on how to prevent deflation and boost growth, but this could be very expensive. In April, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that, just to lift inflation by 0.2%, the ECB would need to buy assets worth a further €1 trillion. While Mario Draghi, ECB governor, said in 2012 that he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, there are limits on how much individual countries, particularly Germany, are prepared to spend or go into debt to save others.
Despite recent growth in some countries, the eurozone’s GDP in the first quarter of 2014 was still 2.5% below its pre-crisis peak reached in the first quarter of 2008. The situation is still shaky. Last year, European companies wrote off €360 billion-worth of bad debts, 3.1% of their total revenue. In the first quarter of 2014 European companies’ revenues fell. A new round of crisis would also undermine the seemingly more stable countries like Germany, Belgium, Austria etc, while severely hitting the hopes of development in central and eastern Europe.
It would increase tensions within and between countries. In such circumstances, there could be pressures for a breakup or reordering of the eurozone as the ruling classes of different countries fought for their own national interests and to contain anger inside their own countries. Already there is great anger against the troika in the countries which have suffered the so-called bailout. More generally, there is opposition to what is seen as German, or more precisely German imperialist, domination of the EU. This is a basis for increased national rivalries and unilateral decisions that can undermine both the euro and the EU in its present form.
The future challenge
Just before the election, the Financial Times commented: “Europeans see a world in which the gains of globalisation are being scooped up by the richest 1%. Their own incomes are stagnating, their jobs are insecure and many of their children are unemployed”. The current lull in struggles in many countries must not be misunderstood. It is not a passive acceptance of the situation or of the sugary words from governments. The election results have given indications of the tensions developing beneath the surface and the undermining of the old order.
Inevitably, there will be new struggles, protests and movements as workers, youth and others come to the conclusion that they cannot continue as they are now, or under the impact of new crises. New experiences will be made and conclusions drawn. There will also be an increasing competition to win support from those moving into opposition to the current system. In Britain, there is the question of whether UKIP can establish itself as a more lasting feature in the political landscape, like the NF in France or Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, or will be a catalyst for wider realignments on the right.
There will also be opportunities for the left, including the chance to undermine the far-right. Behind their populist phrases, the far-right have very little to offer because, at the end of the day, they will not challenge capitalism. That means that they do not have a programme that can deal with this crisis in the interests of working people. If there is a socialist force which can popularise a socialist programme and show that it means to carry it out then the far-right can be effectively confronted. The challenge is to build such a force.
May’s elections have shown the current situation on the left in Europe. In a number of countries, like Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany, left parties have significant national positions which can be utilised for taking struggles forward and rebuilding the workers’ movement. In Belgium, the success of the Workers’ Party (PTB/Pvda) getting elected to the national and regional parliaments gives it an opportunity to play an important role, but it is an open question whether its leaders are prepared to break from the top down approach inherited from its Maoist past. In Ireland, the strength of the anti-austerity vote has opened up a new period which can offer new opportunities for building a socialist force.
But election victories on their own do not guarantee a party’s future or the role it will play, something that the sad stories of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party can testify to. Parties are always being put to the test by events and challenges.
Elections are not the easiest form of struggle and results do not develop in a straight line. In Ireland, the Socialist Party was not able to see Paul Murray re-elected to the European parliament in Dublin, partly because the Socialist Workers Party stood against him. But, on the same day, the Socialist Party won a by-election that put Ruth Coppinger into the Irish parliament, and increased its number of local councillors.
The election successes that the left won can be important points of support in helping the struggles that lie ahead and in rebuilding the workers’ movement. This is not automatic. The far-right and neo-fascist advances are a warning. Capitalist Europe will be struck by new crises and upheavals. Renewed movements of the working class and youth are inevitable. The test will be how battles can be won and the workers’ movement rebuilt on genuinely socialist lines.