Monday, June 8, 2009

European Parliament shifts right

In Germany, Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU held its own while the pro-business FDP made surprising gains at the expense of the social democrats (SPD).

The SPD had attacked the libertarian party, claiming that "finance sharks would vote for FDP" with the byline of "for a Europe with clear rules for all", which prompted the FDP to claim that "the bankrupt would vote SPD", with the byline of "for a sound budget policy".

The FDP clearly won the political battle, with the business-friendly party almost doubling its vote share from 5 years ago to 11%, and the SPD taking 20.8% of the vote, its worst election showing in post-war German history. Chancellor Merkel is likely feeling optimistic about her chances of being able to ditch her current "Grand Coalition" with the SPD in favour of a coalition with the FDP after the German federal election scheduled for the end of September.

The success of the far right in the weekend's elections for the European Parliament is understandable; tough times are prime times for xenophobic nationalists. But the failure of the social democrats across Europe (it was not just in Germany) "to take advantage of a financial crisis that might have been tailor-made for critics of free market excesses" (as the Economist put it) and make gains at the expense of parties like Germany's FDP is remarkable, all the more so given the contrasting state of retreat of the political right in America.

The only explanation I can think of is that the FDP's campaign slogan "for a sound budget policy" spoke to a constituency that has not had a meaningful presence in the USA for a while now. In any case, the declining influence of the social democrats in Europe seems serious:
It is not the threat from the extreme right that is the most striking characteristic of these elections, though clearly there is a shift to the right, and centre-right governments are likely to make more concessions to the far right. The real story is the crisis of the left.

We have been here before, in the 1930s when the net effect of the Depression was to strengthen the right and nullify the left - Labour was reduced to 50 MPs in 1931. The left rose again, but I am not optimistic about it being able to do so this time. Social democratic parties across Europe are in decline. That decline is not as dramatic as the communists a generation ago, but it is still marked. The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency. That may be hard.

The left is in trouble everywhere: Labour in the UK, the French socialists, the Italian democrats. The Spanish socialists, one of the few leftwing parties to gain in recent years, have also slipped. The SPD in Germany are not doing as badly as expected, but they are down to around 20%, and these losses are not compensated by the votes for the New Left party. We have seen the demoralisation of the French left and a degree of disintegration of the left in Germany. Social democrats will need a new vision as well as a new constituency.
- Eric Hobsbawm

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