2021-09-29 12:44:43 Do Germany’s Election Results Signal a Left Turn for Europe?

Do Germany’s Election Results Signal a Left Turn for Europe?

The Social Democratic Party of Germany and its candidate, Olaf Scholz, won the election on Sunday. It was a remarkable comeback for a center-left party that, like many others across Europe, had been losing votes at the polls for the past decade or more.

So the question immediately arises as to whether Mr. Scholz’s victory in Germany is a sign of a broader revival for the center-left parties that were once mainstays of European politics.

Inside Germany, Mr. Scholz is preparing to enter into coalition talks with the Greens and the libertarian Free Democrats to form a left-wing coalition government. After his centrist campaign, it’s unclear how far to the left he’ll lean. And nothing is certain: his conservative opponent, who lost by only 1.6 percentage points, has refused to concede and is also attempting to form a coalition.

Despite the fact that the results have thrown Mr. Scholz’s conservative opponents into disarray, the landscape for the center left remains difficult. In other parts of Europe, many center-left parties have seen their vote share dwindle as their traditional base of unionized, industrial workers fades and political blocs splinter into a slew of smaller parties.

However, following a surge in right-wing populists in recent years, there are some indications that the political pendulum may be about to swing back. Here are some of the factors that will determine whether or not a center-left revival is possible.

Both sides’ large-tent parties have shrunk.

The German elections highlighted a trend that was already visible across the continent: fragmentation and volatility in political support.

Only three decades ago, Germany’s two major parties received more than 80% of the vote in a national election. On Sunday, the Social Democrats received only 25.7 percent of the vote, while the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, received 24.1 percent, calling into question their legitimacy as “Volkspartei,” or broad-based parties that represent all aspects of society.

The votes that the once-dominant parties are losing are going to parties with more narrowly defined positions, such as the Greens, who are motivated by environmental concerns, or the libertarian Free Democratic Party. If the German vote were divided into traditional notions of “right” and “left,” it would be nearly evenly divided, with roughly 45 percent on each side.

On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of 14 European Union countries in 2019 and discovered that few voters had positive views of political parties. Only six of the nearly 60 were viewed favorably by more than half of their respective populations. Populist parties in Europe were generally panned as well.

The left has a lot of ground to make up.

It remains to be seen whether the German Social Democrats will be able to form a governing coalition. However, if they do, they will be joining a relatively small club.

Only Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Malta have distinctly center-left governments among the EU’s 27 member states.

After 1945, the old voting coalitions that empowered the continent’s center-left included industrial workers, public-sector employees, and urban professionals. However, those groups have fragmented, owing primarily to class and economic needs.

Tony Blair’s Labour Party won re-election in Britain two decades ago, promoting center-left policies similar to those of President Bill Clinton. Labour has been out of power for more than a decade, and in recent elections it has suffered crushing defeats in working-class areas of England where it once had strong support.

In France, the center-left Socialist Party has never recovered from François Hollande’s unpopular presidency and its disastrous performance in subsequent elections. Since then, France’s political landscape has shifted to the right, with support for the Socialists and other left-wing parties dwindling.

With presidential elections coming up in April, President Emmanuel Macron, who ran as a centrist in 2017, has been courting right-wing voters. According to polls, he and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, are the two favorites to advance from the first round and meet in a runoff.

Since declaring her candidacy earlier this month, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and a Socialist presidential candidate, has been losing support. According to a poll released last Thursday, only 4% of potential voters said they would vote for her in the first round of the election next April.

And the term “left” is no longer what it once was.

Following World War II, as money poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan and industry boomed, those opposed to Communism but concerned that capitalism would exacerbate instability and inequality banded together under a broad umbrella of center-left parties.

They advocated for strong labor unions and welfare states with generous education and health-care systems.

The lines between the center left and center right in Germany, as in other countries, began to blur some time ago.

But if there is one issue that unites many voters on both the left and right, it is the role that the European Union should play in national governance.

Many far-right parties have gained popularity by portraying Brussels as a regulatory overlord who usurps the sovereignty of the union’s member states. Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, on the other hand, are staunch supporters of the European Union, but have been wary of deepening some fiscal ties within the bloc. However, many Social Democrats believe that the European Union should be strengthened through deeper integration.

The pandemic put Europe’s bonds to the test, and that process may have aided the Social Democrats as Germany set aside its traditional aversion to shared E.U. debt to fund emergency spending.

Mr. Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, devised the strategy with his French counterpart. Ms. Merkel, who approved the agreement, has repeatedly stated that it was a one-time occurrence.

Mr. Scholz’s central role in negotiating the agreement put him squarely on the side of Germans who want ever-tighter ties with their European neighbors.

Personality is more important than ever.

Another common denominator in Europe’s fragmented political landscape is that voters seem to value personalities far more than traditional parties and the issues they represent.

On the European political stage, there have always been outsized personalities. However, whether it was Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, or Willy Brandt, they were all guided by a set of ideological principles.

The failure of the major political parties to address the issues that voters face has given rise to a new generation of leaders who see themselves as iconoclasts. Mr. Macron in France and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom could not be more dissimilar. Both, however, are opportunistic, defy convention, and have created larger-than-life personas in order to command public attention. Voters have so far rewarded them.

Angela Merkel was their antithesis, a study in staid reticence who transcended ideological differences by exuding stability. Her party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, was unable to persuade voters that he was her natural heir, which allowed Mr. Scholz to position himself as the most Merkel-like candidate despite being in a different party.

Norimitsu Onishi helped with reporting.

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Do Germany’s Election Results Signal a Left Turn for Europe?