European elections: Signs of hope in the gloom

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras (centre) has called for fresh elections in Greece after his party won the European elections in the country.

The European parliamentary poll on May 25 was dominated by the victories of the xenophobic and racist National Front (FN) in France (26%, 24 Members of the European Parliament) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain (26.8%, 24 MEPs) — triggering a fit of mainstream media angst.

The angst is understandable. Five years after the 2009 European elections, the political basis for the European Commission’s austerity drive has been severely weakened. This has rendered “governance” of the 28-member European Union even more difficult.

Far right strengthens

Moreover, old European spectres have re-emerged. There has been a surge in support for groups that identify as Nazi or fascistic, such as the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Jobbik and the German National Democratic Party (NDP). Their victories are a direct result of the economic crisis and the austerity policies of “Brussels”.

After scoring 0.46% and 23,566 votes in the 2009 European Parliament elections, Golden Dawn’s vote rose to 9.38%. Hundreds of thousands cast their vote for the neo-Nazi group.

The tide of “respectable” xenophobia has also reached high water. The Danish People’s Party (DFP) topped the poll in Denmark. In Belgium, specialists in “reasonable” scapegoating of migrants and French-Belgian welfare recipients the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) won with 16.35% of the vote. The racist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) came in third with 19.7%, as did Dutch islamophobe Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) (13.2%).

These are horrible results, and the victory of the French National Front (FN) in the country of western Europe’s greatest revolution for democracy the most horrible of all. Yet they were inevitable.

With anti-austerity left parties and coalitions failing to reach a threshold of political credibility in many countries, a mass vote for right-wing populists posing as opponents of the system was unavoidable.

Yet the outcome is fraught with contradictions. Despite appearances and the apocalyptic response of mainstream politicians — such as French Socialist Party prime minister Manuel Valls (“it’s an earthquake”) — the result does not represent a huge general swing to the right across all Europe. Rather it is more a hollowing out of the mainstream right and centre-right by the eurosceptic and racist right.

The election has certainly produced a partial rightward shift. The greatest losses were experienced by the ruling European People’s Party fraction (EPP), which lost 61 seats to retain just 213 seats in the 751-seat European parliament.

At the same time, however, the broadly defined left increased its presence, rising from 37.6% to 38.5% of seats in the European parliament. Of this, the social-democratic Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats won 191 seats, the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) won 52 seats and the anti-capitalist left’s European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) won 42 seats.

Within this broad left spectrum, both greens and social-democrats lost ground, while the GUE-NGL has gained — as have left and centre-left nationalist forces within the EFA, which groups together MEPs from “nations without a state”.

The two main right parliamentary groups — the EPP and the anti-federalist and eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) — had 43.2% of seats before May 25. Their share has now fallen to 34.5%.

The strength of the centre-right Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has also declined, from 10.8% to 8.5%.

The winners on the right are the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, basically an alliance of the UKIP and Italy’s Northern League, which has grown from 4% to 5.1% of seats. The far right forces that also made gains, such as the National Front and Golden Dawn, have yet to form a parliamentary group—and seem very unlikely to be able to do so, as they almost certainly won’t meet the parliamentary requirement of 25 MEPs from at least seven member states. UKIP, for example, has announced that it will not be forming a fraction with Le Pen and Golden Dawn.

Signs of hope

The main immediate impact of May 25 is to destroy the right and centre-right majority that was the basis for the European Commission’s austerity program, and to raise the pressure on the PASD to form a German-style broad governing coalition with the EPP.

Yet, this choice would have to be carried out in a continent where the two countries that have seen the highest level of social struggle —Greece and the Spanish state — have also seen the greatest growth of left anti-austerity alternatives, and the greatest level of crisis within established social democracy.

This trend reached a new high at this European election.

In Greece, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) won the poll with 26.6%, 3.9% more than the ruling conservative New Democracy. Pasok, Greece’s traditional party of social democracy, ran as part of the Olive Tree-Democratic Alignment, which scored only 8.1%.

In the aftermath, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras demanded new elections in Greece.

In Spain, the election delivered a possibly mortal blow to the two-party system of the ruling People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Between them, the main parties of the “post-dictatorship transition” could only manage 49.1%. They won five million votes less than in the 2009 European election.

At the same time, the vote for the Plural Left (an electoral coalition led by the United Left) rose from 3.7% to 10% (two seats to six. Newcomer Podemos (“We Can”), seen by many in the indignado generation as their own organisation against the “political class” and attracting a vote that may well not have gone to the Plural Left, achieved an astonishing 8% (five seats).

In those parts of the Spanish state where the struggle against austerity and cuts to public services has been fiercest, such as Madrid and the Balearic Islands, Podemos actually outscored the Plural Left.

Podemos candidates celebreate their result.

Left and centre-left national forces also advanced. This was most notable in Catalonia, where an 11 percentage point rise in the participation rate helped the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC, 23.7%) defeat the ruling right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU, 21.9%). This was the first time the oldest party of Catalan nationalism has won an election since 1932.

At the same time, Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), allied in Catalonia with the United Left, lifted its vote to 10.3% from 6.1% in 2009.

The crisis of social democracy is starting to assume Pasok-like dimensions in Catalonia. At this poll the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), comfortable winners of the 2009 European election with 36%, was reduced to 14.3% (350,000 votes less), and fell behind ICV in Barcelona city for the first time.

Left nationalist and regionalist forces also won seats in the Basque Country and Valencia.

The other countries where the progressive anti-austerity vote rose the most were Ireland and Italy. In Ireland, Sinn Fein, the traditional party of left nationalism, more than doubled its vote to 17% in the Republic on the basis of opposition to austerity (winning three seats), and retained the seat it held in the six counties still claimed by Britain in the north.

In Italy, the new formation The Other Europe-with Tsipras—won three seats, returning the country’s anti-capitalist left to a presence in the European parliament after its disastrous failure to win any seats in 2009.

By contrast, in Portugal, the other country hardest hit by the crisis, social democracy managed a partial recovery at the expense of the anti-capitalist left, in particular the Left Bloc. The Socialist Party vote, at 26.5% in 2009, climbed to 31.5%. The combined far left vote of the Communist Party-Greens and Left Bloc (21.4% in 2009), fell to 17.2% at this election, with the Left Bloc vote falling from 10.7% to 4.6%.

However, the Portuguese political scene has also been marked by the dramatic emergence of a newcomer representing mass discontent — the Party of the Land, which won 7.1% and two seats.

New phase

Forces such as Podemos and The Other Europe-with Tsipras will now have to decide whether they enter the existing GUE-NGL group of left parties across Europe. If they do, a strengthened left in the European parliament would be better placed to support the social struggles that lie at the root of its growth.

A further step — not easy but not inconceivable — would be for the left to find ways to collaborate with the radical eurosceptic Italian Five Stars Movement of Beppe Grillo, which won 21.2% and 17 seats on May 25.

In immediate terms, the most positive impact of this election will be on the national political struggle in the Spanish state and Greece. Podemos spokesperson Pablo Iglesias said collaboration with Syriza will be a priority for the group and its MEPs.

At the same time, the national secretary of the PSOE, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, has called an emergency PSOE congress, announcing that he will not contest the leadership again.

[See the full resuts at European Parliament's site. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. More detailed analysis of the European election can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

From GLW issue 1011