Traditional centre-left/social-democratic parties are facing a hard time in Europe. From a continent that 15 years ago was mostly social democratic, now only Portugal, Austria, France, Italy and Sweden have traditional leftist governments with a few more in Eastern European countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic or Romania. Even outside of Europe, leftwing movements and parties face similar problems. For example the Democratic Party in the United States lost the last presidential elections to a dangerous right-wing populist, Donald Trump after 8 years of seemingly successful democratic governance or the Labour Party in Australia.
So what are the reasons behind these bad results?
One of the reasons for this was the Great Recession of 2009 that followed the 2008 stock market crash. Most of these countries still face the effects of this crisis today and they are likely to continue to suffer those effects in the following years. However, if this crisis happened deep in the heart of liberal capitalism, why have the centre-left parties been hurt?
Centre-left parties have been hurt because they no longer represent the traditional left that is heavily linked to trade unions and that focused mostly on social justice matters such as poverty and income redistribution. Now these parties are part of the international order and a, very important, support an European Union that can be characterized by mostly economic-liberal policies and prefers to focus on issues like globalism, racism, feminism, and LGBT rights. Sometimes way more than the social democratic parties usually identified as their main causes. This means that when the crisis struck Europe, these parties became in a perilous situation because of their position in many governments at that date. The wave of unemployment and poverty that followed led many citizens to discredit these governments even when they tried to deny their own involvement. Instead, the leftwing parties solely blamed the Financial crisis for the problems and stated that the crisis would have been worse without their welfare state policies. So as we can see, this crisis affected the centre of the political spectrum as a whole, both the one leaning to the right and the one leaning towards the left.
Another problem for the left in Europe happened in 2010 when Greece, Ireland, Portugal and even Spain and Italy started to have a big a increase in their sovereign debt which led to a big increase on the interest rates on their bonds. However, their debt was already increasing before as a result of a natural increase in spending and a decrease in revenue. But it was only at that point in 2010 that the markets shifted their attention from GDP growth and unemployment towards debt and deficit. This caused the 2010/2011 bailouts in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and in the Spanish financial sector. Due to the fact that these countries had mostly leftist governments, they claimed in a rightwing fashion that overspending was the cause of all problems. This vision was supported by the European Union establishment, and sometimes even had xenophobic remarks about Southern European countries that were referred to as PIGS and lazy. This decreased even more the credibility of the social democratic parties, not only in Southern Europe but also in other parts of Europe. Those parties became trapped by the Eurozone strict budget constraints and were often unable to pursue traditional leftist or Keynesian policies.
Faced with a lack of alternatives to the current order in the centre of the political spectrum, many started to look for alternatives in the extremes. In Southern Europe the harsh austerity measures resulted into even more social problems. It was a catalyst for the huge increase in support for radical left parties like Syriza (current government in Greece), Podemos (second biggest party in Spain) and even the centre-left Portuguese Socialist Party which is support by two radical left parties. These parties promised populist leftist measures such as an increase in public wages, more welfare policies, an increase in tax for the rich and even renegotiate debt and leaving Eurozone. However, the Syriza example showed us that a lot of these promises are unrealistic making leftwing policies even more vulnerable.
On the other end of the political spectrum, we see a dramatic rise of the far-right and right-wing populist parties in several European countries. In fact, unlike what many people think. these parties are not the opposite of the radical left parties since they both are Eurosceptic, have a disregard for the establishment and some of the far-right parties also have some left leaning economic policies, as is the case of the Front National, in France, the Lega Nord, in Italy, and even the AFD in Germany. It’s not impossible for two people with similar beliefs to vote one in a radical left and the other on a far-right party. The biggest reason that the popularity of far right parties grows is because of immigration. These parties exploit people’s fears, raise concerns regarding the negative effects of both economic and social globalization, claim that people are losing their jobs to other countries, and they claim that immigration has to stop because immigrants steal their jobs.
This makes them so effective among the blue-collar workers as the recent Brexit and US Presidential election showed us. However a new factor made these parties even more powerful in Europe, the War in Syria and the subsequent Refugee Crisis. Already existing fears were about immigrants, in combination with weakening socio-economic standards, made sure several rightwing parties are serious candidates to win their elections. The terrorist attacks, continuous turmoil, and social unrest make sure they have a strong basis.
The centre-left and the liberals are also to blame for the rise on these parties because they have not been tackling this issue well enough or taking people’s concerns seriously. They are essentially adopting a very refugee friendly attitude, sometimes even ignoring crimes and instability that a minority of them is causing in Europe. Some of these parties consider any critic of refugees or/and Islam as being Islamophobic or racist. We must admit however that some people are difficult to integrate and do cause problems in our Western societies. The conditions making sure that the large numbers of immigrants can be successfully integrated are often missing. It’s a kind of double standard, one for westerners and another one for refugees and non-westerners, which moves the social democratic and social liberal parties further away of what the average population thinks or is concerned about. It makes them feel betrayed by the same parties which they voted for 10 or 20 years ago. In the United States there are also similar problems with some DNC members giving more importance to minority rights than to poverty, education or health. This results in a disconnection of many citizens with the party, specially poor and middle class whites, and was one of the main factors that led to Trump’s victory.
Centre-left parties should refocus on traditional issues like poverty and inequality and also take a more pragmatic and balanced stance on the Refugees crisis and Geopolitics in order to reconnect themselves with most of the electorate while not forgetting issues like LGBT rights or the fight against racism of all kinds. This change is crucial if the S&D wants to be the major political force again in Europe. Perhaps, it is a way of saving Western countries from extremism.
Pedro Diogo, Economics Degree