Monday, 6 June 2011
"Centre-right wins in _____" is becoming a familiar headline for European Monday mornings. Conservative governments are re-elected, while centre-left governments are voted out. The left hasn't won an election here since the Socialists took power in Greece in 2009. With the Portuguese Socialists gone, this leaves the EU with only five centre-left governments - Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Slovenia and Spain. Compare this to the 19 governments controlled by the centre-right - plus three controlled by the right-leaning free-market Liberals.
Given the disastrous local election results for Spain's Socialists two weeks ago one can assume they will fall from power in the country's general election next year, if not earlier. This will leave the left with essentially no presence in Europe. It is an unprecedented situation in modern European history - the first time since the advent of widespread Democracy that the European left has had no voice.
economic crisis, seen by many as a failure of free-market capitalism and conservative ideology, has spurred Europeans to vote overwhelmingly for the right. To understand why one must keep in mind that in Europe the global economic crisis spurred two additional crisies - the debt crisis and the currency crisis.
Governments on both sides of the political spectrum behaved badly during the early part of the new millennium - whether it was the runaway borrowing and spending of Labour in the UK or the conservatives cooking the books and lying about their financial health in Greece. The global economic crisis made that house of cards fall in on itself. Now the focus is on one thing - reducing the debt of some of the worst-hit economies to prevent the EU's common currency from collapsing. This, the powers that be have decided, must involve austerity measures to massively cut Europe's social welfare systems. Since such austerity has been the long-term desire of Europe's right for decades, voters have turned to them to make the cuts they are convinced need to be made.
Of course that is only one explanation for the current situation, another could be that these things are cyclical and Europe just happens to be going through a right-leaning period during this crisis. After all, just six years ago the centre-left was a powerful force in Europe that held the governments of Germany and Britain. Perhaps six years from now Europe could be back in that situation again.
But the 'cycle' argument doesn't quite jibe with history, because Europe's governments don't tend to be in sync when it comes to left-right divides. In fact, it is historically unprecedented for most of Europe's governments to be controlled by the same ideology at the same time. Post-war Europe has seen few pan-European ideological patterns like the one we're seeing today. Is it a sign of greater coordination and greater ideological unity that the whole of Europe seems to be endorsing one course of action, one ideological solution? From a pro-EU 'federalist' perspective, it could be seen as encouraging that Europe is now united behind the voice of austerity. Even for the Socialists, is it better to have Europe united on one track while it deals with the economic crisis than to have it divided between left and right, squabbling over the best course of action to take?
defeat in his hometown of Milan last week - a regional election Berlusconi himself said would be a referendum on his leadership. And in France, president Nicolas Sarkozy's popularity is so low that re-election next year is going to be a difficult task even after the arrest of the opposition's most high-profile candidate. Yet in both countries the left is in such a state of disarray that it's hard to see how they could stage a successful campaign to retake the leadership.
These are dark times indeed for the left in Europe.