Europe’s Center-Left Learns to Live After Death
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party suffered a painful defeat in the recent U.K. election, it’s easy to criticize the European center-left for being poorly led and out of touch with voters. Germany, Italy and other countries easily spring to mind. But the embattled center-left actually held its own in Europe this year, mainly thanks to its skill at governing and backroom politics rather than any exciting ideas it’s been able to offer voters.
It even appeared to get a new lease on life in some countries — but as a zombie.
Indeed, Corbyn's radical nationalization plans scared many British voters worse than Brexit, on which the Labour leader wouldn’t take a stand. It can’t be denied that the German Social Democratic Party is in freefall, that the moderate left in France looks dead, or that ultranationalist forces have overtaken the venerable center-left parties in Swedish and Finnish polls. And yet on average, moderate socialist forces aren’t polling much worse in Europe than at the end of last year. The average drop in their support is about 0.6 percentage point.
A Glimmer in the East
Averages aren’t necessarily telling. But Europe is a complex quilt, and while in some of the bigger nations the center-left is in retreat, elsewhere their popularity has bounced off the bottom.
In a number of post-Communist nations, left-wing forces are polling better than at the end of last year. Poland, where the united left did unexpectedly well in this year’s parliamentary election after years of being out of contention, is one example. The center-left also is up slightly in the Czech Republic and considerably in Lithuania. In Croatia, the Social Democratic Party is catching up to the center-right, and its candidate, former prime minister Zoran Milanovic, has just won the first round of the presidential election. He’s been calling for a more tolerant, less nationalistic government.
That, of course, is only a slight bounce in countries that rarely make headlines. And far be it from me to root for leftists in Eastern Europe, where a radical form of the ideology has wreaked havoc. Yet the improved performance of the moderate left does signify a certain softening in countries that swung decisively to the right during the last decade. The pendulum won’t swing back overnight, but it’s important to know that people who are working on it aren’t entirely unsuccessful.
Playing the System
In some countries, the center-left’s relatively solid performance this year is really nothing to celebrate. Parties hit by major corruption scandals have proved remarkably resilient.
In Malta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is leaving in January after a number of his allies had their reputations sullied by association with an oligarch suspected of ordering an investigative journalist’s murder. But the ruling Labour Party still has majority support. In Slovakia, too, the ruling center-left party, Smer, is still the most popular despite being damaged by an uncannily similar chain of events last year.
The only explanation for this tenacity is the high degree of control these parties exercise over their countries’ political machinery. It has nothing to do with the popularity of leftist ideas, just with the backroom skills of nominally socialist leaders. Where scandal-hit parties don’t have such a firm hold on the levers, they have slipped. In Romania, the Social Democratic Party’s awful record on fighting corruption caused its government to collapse and the party itself to fall from first to second in nationwide polls. In Finland, the bungling of former prime minister Antti Rinne, who mishandled a postal strike, didn’t kill the left-leaning governing coalition only because the other parties in it were willing to support his 34-year-old deputy Sanna Marin in his place.
Marin is one of three center-left prime ministers who headed up their European nations this year; the other two also are from Nordic nations — Sweden’s Stefan Lofven and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen. Like Marin, they didn’t come to power as a result of convincing election victories. Lofven appeared to have been ousted in last year’s national election, but he came back early this year as the only compromise candidate who could put together a governing coalition. Frederiksen’s Social Democrats actually did worse in this year’s election than in the last one, but her minority government is hanging on thanks to her cool common-sense style.
The Social Democrats’ ability to scrounge political victories despite being relatively unpopular is an important asset. It’s the reason Germany’s unhappy governing coalition hasn’t broken down yet despite a series of increasingly desperate leadership changes in the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. Merkel, who wants to serve out her term, has a little less than two years to go, and she’s allowed the Social Democrats to play an oversize role in policy-making for stability’s sake.
The same center-left tenacity has landed Italy’s Democratic Party in government after far-right leader Matteo Salvini overplayed his hand by trying to force an early election, and his party’s coalition partner, the leftist-populist Five Star Movement, opted for a deal with the Democrats instead.
And the same ability to play a bad hand well is sustaining Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, still working on staying in power after a disappointing election result. (I’m not a fan, by the way, of comparing parties’ current election results with those from the 20th century; the world has changed, niche consumption is the order of the day not just in politics, and the days of outright victories in proportional representation systems are gone for good).
This capacity for hanging on by the skin of their teeth in ugly political situations in which they have little popular support isn’t admirable. Europe doesn’t really need more leaders without a strong popular mandate. When people protest against bland government by voting for the far-right but the center-left manage to win power through backroom maneuvering, that tends to strengthen the ultranationalists, as the polls in Sweden and Finland and the results of the latest election in Spain have clearly shown.
But the ability to play the system as skillfully as politicians from the establishment left often do is nothing to sneeze at. Politics and government are professions, and these are professionals, good at negotiating, making compromises and avoiding chaos. Voters may despise people with these skills, but potential coalition partners shouldn’t discount them.
The important question for the European center-left is whether it really wants to turn into a supplier of adults-in-the-room and top-flight negotiators to fractious coalitions in which they don’t really call the shots because they lack the requisite popular support. All the fundamental reasons why the moderate left is eroding, no matter how slowly, are still there: The decline of the labor unions, relatively strong social safety nets in Western Europe, young voters’ search for clarity and simple answers.
Going for more courageous leftist ideas, which I thought last year might be the ticket, has proved difficult. Corbyn was caught in that trap: His ideas were far too radical for British voters. In fact, radical left parties that support big reforms like the universal basic income or high wealth taxes haven’t done well this year. The hard-left group in the European Parliament, GUE/NGL, went to 38 seats in the European Parliament after this year’s election from 52 in the previous one.
So what is there for the moderate left to do except wait for the next economic crisis, which might make their agenda of better worker protections more relevant?
One answer, of course, is to search for more charismatic, younger leaders who might impress young voters. But that’s easier said than done. In the meantime, pacts with the hard-left in which the moderates play a calming, stabilizing role can be a working formula. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s Socialist Party improved its share of the vote this year after governing for a term with the Communists and the relatively radical Left Bloc. In Spain, Sanchez is trying to recreate that success by forming an alliance with the more radical Podemos party.
Alliances between the traditional hard-left, the green-left and the moderate left are still relatively rare, although such coalitions operate not just in southern Europe but also in a number of German states. Turning such marriages of convenience into electoral blocs wouldn’t be easy, but it holds the prospect of creating more dynamic, younger leftist political forces that, at the same time, don’t scare off the more cautious voters thanks to the presence of sober, skillful political professionals.
It’s something to try, anyway; the alternative appears to be slow dying.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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