Now that the dust has settled from the recent elections for the European Parliament it is time to take a deep breath and see what really happened. No, Britain is not about to toss its immigrant population into the sea. No, France’s Marine Le Pen is not about to march on the Elysee Palace. And, as repulsive as the thugs of Hungary’s Jobbik Party and Greece’s New Dawn are, it was the continent’s left to whom the laurels went in last month’s poll.
Parties that targeted unemployment, austerity and the growing wealth gap in Europe did well, and the dramatic breakthrough of right wing racist and xenophobic parties in France, Britain, and Denmark had less to do with a neo-Nazi surge than with the inability or unwillingness of the opposition in those countries to offer a viable alternative to a half decade of economic misery. Indeed, if there was a message in the May 25 EU elections, it was that those who trumpeted austerity as the panacea for economic crisis were punished.
Hence Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took a drubbing, France’s ruling Socialists were blitzed, and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s lost eight seats, while her Social Democratic opponents picked up four.
Among the 28 European Union (EU) member countries, 751 seats in the parliament were up for election.
In contrast, where there was a clear choice between economic democracy, on one hand, and “let’s blame it on the immigrants and Roma,” on the other—as in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and most of Central and Eastern Europe—voters went left. As Srecko Horvat, Croatian philosopher and author of “What Does Europe Want?,” commented in the wake of the election, “The European left is back in the game.”
“Earthquake” was the metaphor most used in describing the triumphs of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (NF) in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, and Denmark’s Danish People’s Party. But, if there was a result that shifted the foundations of Europe, it was the victory of Greece’s Syriza Party and the “out of nowhere” appearance of Podemos—“we can”—in Spain.
Syriza emerged from the wreckage inflicted on the Greek economy by the so-called “Troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. For the price of a bailout—most of it siphoned off by big European banks—the Greek government instituted massive layoffs, huge cuts in pensions, health care, and education, and privatized government-owned property. The jobless rate rocketed to 28 percent—over 50% for young people—and millions of Greeks were impoverished. While Greece’s creditors did well, the austerity did nothing to turn the depressed economy around.
Syriza took 26.5 percent of the vote May 25 to become the biggest party in Greece. That figure translated into a general election would net the party 130 seats in the 300 seat Greek parliament. In contrast, the two governing parties that oversaw the austerity program lost over 10 percentage points between them.
Much of the media focused on the neo-Nazi New Dawn Party, which won 9.4 percent of the vote—a 2.4 percent jump over their 2012 showing. New Dawn will send three representatives to the European Parliament, where the Greek left will swamp their representatives.
Another rightwing Greek party, the Popular Orthodox Rally lost voters.
While Syriza focused on the Greek domestic crisis, it also consciously attached itself to other left anti-austerity movements throughout the continent. “What happened in Greece is not a success story but a social tragedy that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere in Europe,” Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said during a debate among candidates for the post of European Commission president.
That “anywhere in Europe” resonated in other countries entrapped in the Troika austerity formula or struggling to emerge from stagnant economies and long-tern unemployment. Beside Greece, the most conspicuous example was Podemos in Spain.
Podemos came out of the massive anti-austerity rallies that paralyzed Madrid and other Spanish cities in 2011, and which impelled similar demonstrations in Europe and the U.S., including the Occupy Wall Street movement. Podemos, says its leader Pablo Iglesias, is “citizens doing politics. If the citizens don’t get involved in politics others will. And that opens the door to their robbing you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet.”
The Spanish party consciously modeled itself on Syriza, not only in program, but also in its grassroots, bottoms-up organizing tactics. While Podemos has only been in existence four months, it took 8 percent of the vote nationwide and 11 percent in Madrid. Added to the success of left parties in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Basque Region, plus the votes for the Spanish Green Party and the Socialist Party, Spain’s ruling rightwing Popular Party is suddenly a decidedly minority organization.
That pattern was repeated in several other countries.
In Ireland the two parties that oversaw the austerity program—Fine Gael and Labour—dropped 16.5% and 12.5% respectively from the 2011 general election, while left and independent parties, like Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party and People Before Profits cornered 45% percent of the vote. The anti-austerity Portuguese Socialist Party defeated the center-right coalition that has overseen the Troika’s recipe for Lisbon, and the Portuguese Communist Party took 12.7 percent of the vote.
Italy saw the leftist Democratic Party emerge as the number one political force in the country with 40 percent of the vote, while Beppo Grillo’s angry and iconoclastic, but program-light, Five Star Movement took a beating, coming in at 21.2 percent. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing Forza Italia took third at 16.8 percent. A Syriza look alike, “L’Aitra Europa” (the “Other Europe”), garnered a respectable 4 percent and three seats in the European Parliament after only a few months campaigning. In contrast, the much older and established racist Northern League lost four seats and took an anemic 6.2 percent of the vote.
In Slovenia the United Left won 5.9 percent of the vote, which in a general election would have given the party six seats in parliament.
The extreme right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands lost two seats, and the rightwing Finns Party dropped from the 19 percent it scored in 2011 to 13 percent.
Not that it was all sweetness and light.
Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik took 14.7 percent of the vote, but that was an almost 6 percent drop from what the Party received in last month’s general elections. Poland’s reactionary Congress of the New Right jumped from 1 percent in the 2011 general elections to 7 percent, and Lithuania’s conservative Order and Justice Party scored 14.3%. The anti-immigrant New Flemish Alliance won in Belgium, and Austria’s Freedom Party came in third, with 19.7 percent of the vote. However, right wing parties like Ataka in Bulgaria, the Greater Romanian Party, and the Slovak National Party all lost voters.
The right won parliamentary seats in 10 out of the 28 EU countries, and increased their representation in six of those countries, but also lost seats in seven other countries.
The triumphs of the NF in France and the UKID are certainly worrisome. Both ran virulent, anti-immigrant campaigns, and the NF has long been associated with anti-Semitism and anti-Roma ideology. It would be a mistake, however, to assume everyone who voted for both parties share their penchant for ethnic hatred. Some of that support was indeed racist, but the parties also tapped into voter anger over the economic policies of the EU that have kept both countries locked into near recession conditions.
The “traditional” left—the Socialist Party in France and the Labour Party in the UK—have gone along with some of the troika’s austerity measures, and have also been sotto voce about immigrant bashing. The absence of a serious left critique of EU policies in both countries let many people surrender to their dark side and buy the fable that immigrants have swamped the job market and plundered social services. Especially since many of the rightist parties opportunistically adopted anti-austerity planks.
In Denmark, for instance, the center-right Venstre Party campaigned on denying welfare benefits to immigrants, hardly a platform to contrast itself with the far-right Danish People’s Party.
Politically the continent has rejected the troika’s strategy, much as Latin America did in 2000. “We are opposed to everlasting austerity as a means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds,” says Syriza’s Tsipras. “The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason why we have the crisis today…we predicted from the onset…that austerity-based policies would backfire.”
The trick now will be to pull the various left forces together to hammer out an alternative. Podemos’ Iglesias has declared that the Spanish party intended to work “with other parties from Southern Europe to say that we don’t want to be a colony of Germany and the troika.”
Syriza has already proposed a European summit modeled on the 1953 London Debt Agreement that canceled 50 percent of Germany’s World War II debt and spread out payments on the rest over 30 years.
As for the so-called “earthquake” on the right: the neo-Nazis and immigrant bashers will make a lot of noise, but they offer nothing but hate as an economic solution. The left has a better one, and they are back.
This article was originally posted in Foreign Policy in Focus.