Failure to launch

If ever there was a moment for Europe’s mainstream leftist parties to flourish it was surely in the wake of an economic crisis that has exposed the excesses of rampant capitalism and raised the spectre of mass unemployment.

This week’s European parliamentary election looks likely to show that the left has fluffed its chance, with the sharp downturn casting a harsh spotlight on a Socialist movement largely bereft of charismatic leaders and credible policies.

Opinion polls across the continent predict that traditional leftist parties might get a drubbing in some of the EU’s larger countries, including Britain, France, Italy and Poland, and will fail to shine in many other centres.

“It is clear that the right is going to win in Europe,” veteran French Socialist Jack Lang told Reuters. “If there were some strong leaders like in the United States who could have brought a new vision of European society then things might have been different,” he added, dolefully.

Ironically, the financial meltdown and global recession has shunted political thinking to the left on both sides of the Atlantic, but with differing electoral results.

Whereas in the United States, voters swept away conservative Republicans and elected Democrat Barack Obama as president, in Europe, centre-right parties have nimbly occupied centre-left territory, leaving their opponents stranded.

France’s conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and centre-right German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have led the way, denouncing the old capitalist system, spending billions of euros to prop up their economies and rushing to save struggling firms.

Centre-left parties have also been unable to walk clear of the economic wreckage and blame it on the right, with Britain’s Labour Party and Spain’s Socialist Party at the controls when the car sped off the road and their old friends also implicated.

“Remember the ‘Third Way’ of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, among others,” John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, said in Paris this week, referring to the former U.S., British and German leaders.

“There was an acceptance that largely unfettered capitalism would generate more wealth than any other alternative and all that Social Democrats needed to do was to distribute it,” he said, adding that this had led to soaring inequality and debt.

The glory days of the Third Way marked a high point for the EU centre-left. In 2000, Socialists or Social Democrats headed 11 of the then 15 European Union governments. Now there are just three, Britain, Spain and Portugal. The Dutch Labour party and German SPD are junior government partners while in Austria the centre-left leads the ruling coalition.

“There’s a political cycle rather like an economic cycle. You could think of the 1990s as the decade of Social Democracy with Blair, Schroeder, (French premier Lionel) Jospin,” said Carl Devos, a politics professor at Belgium’s Ghent University.

“The left does not really have an answer to this crisis,” he added, explaining its continued doldrums.

Critics argue that Europe’s left has struggled in recent years to find coherent answers to many of the difficult political issues of the day such as immigration and crime.

Worse still, the economic crisis has exacerbated rifts between modernizers and traditionalists and given new impetus to extremist anti-globalization, anti-capitalist parties.

In France, the Socialist party is having to compete not just against Sarkozy, but also against four far-left groups and radical environmentalists at the June 7 EU election.

Latest opinion polls say Sarkozy’s UMP party should win with around 26 per cent of the vote, while the Socialists could fall beneath the psychologically important 20 per cent threshold, paying the price for bitter divisions in the party hierarchy.

Such splits are afflicting many European leftist parties, no more so than in Italy, where the centre-left Democratic Party looks set to lose heavily, yet again, to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, despite the personal scandals that besiege him.

Analysts say Italian voters see Berlusconi as a safer bet in troubled times than his bickering opponents. Likewise, Germans look set to reward Merkel’s handling of the crisis, despite the economy shrinking a record 3.8 per cent in the first quarter.

“In times of crisis Germans tend to trust their government, and Merkel has benefited from that,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. The same is not true in Britain, where polls suggest Labour faces a crushing defeat, nor in Spain, where the ruling Socialists are at best level with their conservative opponents.

Likely record abstention levels will only exacerbate the centre-left’s problems, with younger voters in particular, who tend to favour the left, expected to desert the ballot box in a continent-wide wave of apathy towards the EU institutions.

Before votes are even cast, many on the left are pondering what to do next, with a shunt away from the centre a likely bet as they try to reconnect with disgruntled, grassroot supporters.

“Europe’s left has flirted too much with ultra-liberalism. We need to bring our old values back into focus,” said Lang, a former French culture minister.


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