Recent elections in France and Greece have generated a good deal of comment, suggesting that the years of center-right governance in Europe may be coming to an end. The defeat of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France by the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, and the collapse in Greece of political parties that allowed unrestrained capitalism and chaos to take hold, are major developments. But whether they represent a turning-point likely to return Western Europe to social democracy cannot yet be taken for granted. Certainly, public opinion has become radicalized to an alarming degree.
European societies are undergoing a process of atomization as confidence in mainstream political parties and their leaders collapses. In the midst of a severe continental crisis, millions upon millions of people feel that their leaders are both unwilling and unable to look for solutions to help the most vulnerable. The masses have become disgusted with professional politicians after giving them many opportunities. Recent national and regional elections in Greece, France and Germany are proof of voters walking away from mainstream parties whose political labels and programs are deceptive. The same trend has been repeated in the recent local elections in Britain.
Unfortunately, when a government loses, the victor picks up where the defeated left. Callous disregard of the masses, and obsession with the accountants’ jargon of “balancing the books,” are behind the austerity imposed on ordinary citizens throughout the European continent. The result is the collapse of traditional politics and the rise of groups on the extremes.
This phenomenon across Europe mirrors what has long been happening in the United States. The difference is that in Europe the coercive power of supranational financial institutions, supported by the United States, is being applied with extraordinary ferocity and haste. It goes against the post-war liberal consensus, developed following the devastation of the two world wars in the last century.
The most traumatic events are taking place in Greece. The fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) from governance to near insignificance, and the collapse of the New Democracy Party vote by a third, in the recent general election are dramatic. The consequence is the rise of new political groups, most notably Syriza, vehemently opposed to the austerity package which, Germany, the wealthiest European country, insists upon.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has her own domestic compulsions and Germany’s public opinion is strongly against bailing other countries out of the crisis. But in refusing to yield on harsh cuts and work for economic growth instead, the German chancellor has created a distinct impression that she does not recognize the Greek people’s democratic choice. The appearance of diktats from Bonn is a highly sensitive issue, for memories of Nazi occupation of Greece during the Second World War are still alive among many Greeks. They may be one of the poorest member-states in the European Union, but are proud of their history and civilization.
The Greek electorate’s refusal to accept harsh cuts any more, reflected in the country’s extraordinarily polarization, made the formation of a coalition government impossible. Reports of the German chancellor telling Greece to hold a referendum on whether Athens wanted to retain the euro currency added fuel to the fire and those reports had to be denied. Nevertheless, the coming election in June will in effect be a referendum on Greece’s continuing presence in the euro area. Otherwise, the country walks away from the straightjacket which eurozone has become, prompting a default on its debt payments and causing a financial “calamity,” as many free marketeers have been predicting with passion.
The past decade has been one of retreat for social democratic politics in Europe. From Scandinavian countries in the north to Italy and Greece in the south, the political right has been dominant across the continent. However, just when old social democrats looked utterly defeated, new forces of the left are beginning to come forward. They have begun to fight back and the tide has started to turn.
In recent months, Chancellor Merkel of Germany has looked like a heartless nanny who has mishandled the Greek crisis. As long as she had an ally in Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of France, the duo dominated. Now, however, Greece is not the only European Union member in crisis and Merkel stands severely weakened by at least two factors. One is the defiance of the Greek people. The other, even more decisive, is the defeat of Sarkozy by his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the French presidential election. Along with Greece, France too goes to the polls for the National Assembly in June, when the domination of the French right is almost certain to end.
At home, the defeat of Merkel’s party in Germany’s most populous region, North Rhine Westphalia, by the Social Democrats is a major jolt against her center-right coalition. So the tide is turning in Europe and the left is emerging from years in the wilderness. But it is not certain how bold the new left, splintered and still facing a strong challenge from the entrenched right, is going to be. It is to be seen whether the left is able to assert itself in the ideological battle with the right.