segunda-feira, 28 de março de 2016
Long goodbye of the European Left
Long goodbye of the European Left
Across the Continent, socialists are failing to capitalize on political opportunities.
By PIERRE BRIANÇON 3/29/16, 5:30 AM CET
PARIS — The European Left often looks divided into two camps: One loses elections, the other doesn’t seem interested in winning them.
After eight years of economic crisis, austerity policies and, more recently, European angst about refugees and immigrants, traditional leftist parties, which dominated Europe 15 years ago, can’t seem to capitalize on conservative governments’ woes or electoral setbacks.
You only had to look at the gloomy faces and meager pronouncements of Europe’s center-left leaders who gathered in Paris earlier this month for a summit hosted by French President François Hollande to get an idea of their current funk.
Gone were references to “socialism” in a meeting that was billed rather as one of “social-democratic leaders” — whether government or party heads. From Hollande’s curt statement after the meeting — in which he offered no “social democratic” solutions to the refugee crisis or even on human rights in Turkey — it was easy to see that on Europe’s most pressing problems, leaders of the traditional Left don’t have much to offer that would distinguish them from conservatives.
“It’s hard to come up with common ideas on today’s major issues when everyone is retreating back along the lines of national interests, at least as they understand them,” said a Hollande aide in defense of the lack of serious pan-European center-left common ground, whether on the economy, the refugee crisis or even on strategic matters such as the attitude towards Russia.
The Left is paying dearly for the years it was in power, which voters don’t remember fondly
The Left is dealing with threats both from the inside, with the rise of movements advocating radical economic or social changes, and the outside, as its traditional voters are increasingly being poached by populist far-right movements such as France’s National Front and Germany’s AfD.
“Throughout Europe, the social democrats have lost their natural engine, which had long been the trade union movement. So they lost a major way to connect with the population at large, and haven’t replaced it with anything,” said André Gattolin, a former pollster who is now a French senator for the Green party. “Just playing public opinion and media instead of voters doesn’t cut it.”
‘They’re all the same’
The Left is paying dearly for the years it was in power, which voters don’t remember fondly. Since the 2008 crisis, the Left has been associated with disappointment. Voters don’t see it as able to govern.
“Its policies haven’t been much different from that of the Right, so when conservatives are in power voters who want a change remember that there’s not much hope from the traditional Left,” said Pierre Martin, a political scientist and specialist in the European Left’s electorate at the Institute of Political Studies in Grenoble. “That favors radical challenges.”
Socialists or social-democrats have also at times been associated with corruption, as were former communist parties in Hungary or Poland. Repeated ethical failings within France’s Socialist governments — starting with Hollande’s first budget minister, revealed as a tax fraud — have convinced voters that the Left had no particular claim to the moral high ground.
The slogan “they’re all the same” has been a powerful booster for new movements on both the Left and Right. And in the U.K., Tony Blair’s lucrative career since he left power may have hurt his party more than his government’s actual record.
Even in the few countries where it still clings to power, such as France, the Left has paid a political price for austerity policies it has never been able to challenge with success. In countries where it has been sent back into opposition limbo, it is bogged down by soul-searching exercises on traditional values that make taking power a distant priority — as seems to be the case with the U.K.’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. And it is increasingly split between those who want to govern, and those who prefer to debate.
Voters aren’t amused. From Madrid to Dublin and from London to Berlin, they have mostly kept social democrats out of power since the beginning of the crisis.
As far as new challenges such as terrorism or immigration, intellectually there’s not much from the Left that is interesting” — Steven Coulter, political economy scholar
The traditional Left loses votes even when its conservative adversaries are booted out of government, as happened in Spain last December. It also takes a beating when it has governed in coalition with center-right opponents. That was the case earlier this month in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU conservative party took a dive in regional elections — and dragged the SPD down with it; and last month in Ireland, where the Labour Party suffered even more than senior coalition partner Fine Gael, losing 26 seats of the 33 it previously held in the lower house of parliament.
The former Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe, apart from a social democrat prime minister in the Czech Republic, are mostly governed by conservatives, sometimes of the authoritarian type, as in Hungary. Since last October’s election, the Sejm, the Polish parliament, doesn’t even count a single member from a leftist political party.
François Hollande will have to start bringing the jobless rate down significantly and durably
Even on economic policy, parties that could once be relied upon to push for fiscal stimulus can’t do it jointly — if only because doing so would corner Germany’s SPD party, the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition. In a time when even the European Central Bank is advocating some form of Keynesianism — higher deficits to boost growth, higher inflation to shrink debt — traditional Left parties feel incapable or unable to agree on what used to be a core economic tenet.
In countries where the Left governs, its hold on power is tenuous. Hollande, who still proudly carries the Left’s social-democratic torch, is the least popular French president since opinion polls have existed. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, head of the center-left PD, has dropped all references to any form of social democratic or socialist heritage in his speeches — though for domestic reasons, he does criticize Germany’s fiscal intransigence. Socialist Antonio Costa has been Portugal’s prime minister for three months, but his party lost the election to the incumbent conservatives and can govern only in coalition with other leftist parties.
“The crisis of the European Left is undeniable,” said Marc Lazar, professor and director of the History Center at Sciences Po in Paris. “We’re in a phase of Europe’s history where the economic crisis, the refugee and immigration problem, the European Union challenges, put the traditional parties from the Left in a tough spot.”
Ever since the crisis started, the traditional Left parties have been keen on denouncing the crisis of financial capitalism, rising inequalities, or globalization run amok, said Steven Coulter, a political economy scholar at the London School of Economics. “But if they talked about the problems,” he said, “they didn’t talk much about the solutions.”
Even when they do, it isn’t enlightening. As far as new challenges such as terrorism or immigration, Coulter said, “intellectually there’s not much from the Left that is interesting.”
It’s a far cry from the triumphant years of social democracy in Europe three decades ago.
“You could argue back then that even when it was not in power the Left had won the intellectual and cultural battle,” said Lazar, the historian. “The golden age of social democracy was the golden age of capitalism — if only because redistribution was possible.”
The solutions are proving elusive. The Left looks unable to win voters’ hearts and minds again just by claiming it can do what the Right does. There’s not much hope either in focusing on social or cultural issues — if only because most of those intellectual and political battles have been won, either long ago or more recently, from the death penalty to abortion rights to gay marriage. The politics of the “lifestyle Left” doesn’t sell anymore at the ballot box.
Whether the radical left is ready to govern, even in coalition with another partner, remains the big unknown
No wonder the old parties are being challenged by new movements pushing more radical policies. Philippe Marlière, a professor of European studies at University College London, notes that parties that once advocated a radical “rupture” with the capitalist system have either disappeared, or moved over to social-democratic ground – such as what remains of the once-powerful French communist party. “The difference between the radical and the traditional Left is no more the choice between reform and revolution,” he says. One telling sign of the times: Even the communist party supports France’s participation in the euro.
Other movements that challenge the very nature of what a political party used to be are on the rise. The Spanish socialist party PSOE didn’t benefit from the defeat of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government last December — it even lost seats. But the Podemos movement, together with the new radical centrist and liberal party Ciudadamos, are now major players in the country’s institutional politics.
Whether the radical left is ready to govern, even in coalition with another partner, remains the big unknown. There are no recent examples in Europe, apart from the first six months of the Syriza government last year in Athens. But Martin said that example doesn’t hold much significance because “Greece’s problem is still to build proper government institutions and a modern state, it doesn’t tell us much about the rest of Europe.”
As the traditional social-democratic parties keep wondering what it means to be on the Left today, some are already proclaiming the end of the traditional party system. Politicians such as France’s reformist economy minister Emmanuel Macron hardly hide the contempt they have for a bureaucratic party system where the traditional notions of “Right” or “Left” have lost their significance.
“The real split, more and more, will be between reformers and conservatives,” said a Macron associate.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who at least on this issue agrees with Macron even though both men look more and more like bitter rivals, keeps repeating whenever asked that he is a man from the Left — although he has long wanted to change the name of his own Socialist Party.
“Left,” Valls once said, “is a wonderful word.” On the “wonderful” part, European voters are still to be convinced.