Europe’s far left narrowly misses a hat-trick

Leigh Phillips analyses the far left results in the recent German, Portugese and Greek elections

October 7, 2009
10 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.

The maggot-infected dead horse of Europe’s centre-left, already demoralised by the utter disapprobation served up by citizens in the June European Parliament election, received a thorough flogging from German voters in the country’s general election at the end of September. This mangy old beast hardly fared better in Portugal with the governing socialists losing their absolute majority.

Only in Greece, which headed to the urns a week later, did social democracy wangle any sort of cleanish victory. Although this was largely a product of a spectacular object lesson in hara-kiri by the parliamentary far left – the sort of deranged and embarrassing public suicide English and Scottish trainspotters of the left will be all too catsuitedly, swingingly familiar with.

This was bit of a bummer for the ‘left of the left’, which by rights should have scored a nifty hat-trick over the last week. All the same, this impressive two-out-of-three standing proves that the far left’s middling result in the European elections were a low turnout aberration while the centre-left’s disaster on 7 June is more indicative of a general pattern.

No shift to the right in Germany

While Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), will be staying in office, in coalition with the Free Democrats who scored a historic high of 14.6 per cent, the CDU victory cannot be in any way described as a triumph or shift to the right. Merkel led her troops to their second worst showing since the Second World War.

The Social Democrats (SPD) meanwhile achieved their absolute worst showing since the war. So much as to be expected. Far from benefiting from the ideological fallout in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, the SPD, like their cousins across the continent, have been engaged in a cosy clusterfuck around the neoliberal centre for the last decade and as such are believed by great swathes of voters to hold equal responsibility for the crash.

Working class voters remember who were the authors of the Hartz reforms – which saw tax cuts and a slashing of medical, pension and unemployment benefits not indistinct to the slash and burn approach of Thatcher and Reagan two decades before – and lacerated the SPD’s vote by 11 per cent to 23 per cent (a loss of some six million votes).

Next to the Free Democrats, the other star of the night was Die Linke (the Left), the coalition of ex-GDR communists, western altermondialists and SPD dropouts, that in its second federal election outing, scored 11.9 per cent, up from 8.7per cent in 2005.

In the eastern state of Brandenburg, Die Linke topped the polls, with

28.5 per cent. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt, also both

in the east, the party came second, while in the capital, Die Linke tied with the SPD for runner-up.

These crackerjack results come in the wake of regional elections in Thuringia, Saarland and Saxony on 30 August, where the new party leapt ahead to second place.

But as formidable as Die Linke’s showing has been, beneath the surface, tensions submerged for the sake of the campaign threaten to openly break out again, with many of the anti-capitalist types in the west suspicious of the Stalinists from the east, and uneasy with how comfortable the ex-Communists and ex-Social Democrats are as a ginger group to the SPD.

The easterners meanwhile, who view themselves as a party of government ready to take the reins of power again, glance askew at the punky, hippie radicals from the west.

But even this is an oversimplification for a party that contains six different internal caucuses. Some sympathisers joke that Die Linke has as many factions as members.

However, the faultlines are quite clear. While the FDP and CDU majority victory rules out the red-red-green coalition that had been mooted in some quarters, such an alliance is quite likely at the state level in Saarland and Thuringia (although shortly after the election, the SPD announced it would rather govern in coalition with the CDU). But when Die Linke has entered government, in Berlin and Brandenburg, its left rhetoric has been revealed to be just that.

Even the party’s popular opposition to the war in Afghanistan (some 80 per cent of Germans oppose occupation) appears to be negotiable. In the week of the election, Dietmar Bartsch, a senior official with Die Linke told the Tagesspiegel newspaper: ‘When we say “out of Afghanistan” we don’t mean “get out of Afghanistan the day after tomorrow.”‘

Portugal’s Left Bloc junks the dogma

Meanwhile, on the southwestern edge of Europe, parties to the left of

the left scored better still.

Portugal’s prime minister, Jose Socrates of the centre-left Socialist

Party, crowed on election night of his 36.5 per cent support, ‘The people have spoken and they have spoken loudly. The Socialists were once again chosen to govern Portugal and they were chosen without any ambiguity.’

But the party had only won 96 seats in the 230-seat chamber, down from

121 in the last election – and some 40 per cent of the electorate stayed at home. The opposition Social Democrats, who despite their name are of

the centre-right, clocked in at 29 per cent, and in a sign that parties

further to the right are profiting from the crisis, the hard-line Popular Party climbed to 21 seats up from the 12 it held previously.

Domestic analysts attribute the victory of the left of the left to alienation amongst blue-collar workers, civil servants and young people from the Socialists, who ahead of the economic crisis had imposed fearsome public spending cuts provoking massive protests, including a general strike.

The big champion of the campaign was the far left, scooping up a combined 17.7 per cent, with the Left Bloc, an alliance of anti-globalisation activists, ecologists, Trotskyists and Maoists, gaining 9.85 per cent to give it 16 seats, and the Communist Party securing 7.9 per cent and 15 seats.

Rui Tavares, a Left Bloc deputy in the European Parliament explained

to Red Pepper the party’s recipe for success: ‘We’re only ten years

old, but the key is that we’re a different kind of left – less dogmatic, less closed, but at the same time not losing our radicality. This is what must be repeated with the rest of the left in Europe.’

‘The old social democrats, with their ideological drift and embrace of the free market in the 1990s, forgot why they were on the left’, he said. Only superficially does it seem like a paradox that the centre-left cannot seem to benefit from the collapse of neoliberalism. They cannot take advantage of this situation because they are implicated themselves.’

‘Portugal [and] Germany are not isolated cases. I can see a clear strategy for the real left to occupy significant political space – a quarter to a third of the electorate. We’ll see a lot more of this in the next few years.’

Ahead of the election, both leading parties ruled out a grand coalition and the Socialists, Left Bloc and Communists have said they will not form an alliance – although such a move would give the parties a comfortable 127-seat majority. With business groups in the days after the election ominously warning what might happen if a leftist coalition were formed, the Socialists are most likely to attempt to continue as a minority government

One young leftwing voter said that he was thrilled by the result, although he warned: “The Left Bloc deserves their victory, but the communists, you have to remember, are old Stalinists, very nationalist. This is not the future of the left. It’s nostalgia.’

Waffle, zigzag, squabble

A week later in Greece, the centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) walked away with 43 per cent of the vote, giving the party 159 seats in the 300-seat chamber. The centre-right New Democracy party of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, had called a snap election only two years after his 2007 election win, hoping to boost his faltering government with its one-seat majority. But the gamble did not pay off, with his scandal-ridden conservatives gaining only 34 per cent of voters.

The Pasok victory masks a deep alienation from official politics for most Greeks. One survey revealed that nine out of ten voters said they had no faith in either main party. Although at one point it looked as though the far left would profit from this sea of mistrust, such hopes failed to materialise.

The far left Syriza coalition saw a decline in its support from the previous

five per cent and 14 seats won in 2007, to 4.4 per cent and 12 seats.

The Greek communists remain the third largest party in the assembly, but they too saw a drop since the last election, clocking in at 7.3 per cent and 20 seats, down from 8.2 per cent and 22 seats.

A year ago expectations were radically different, with Syriza riding a high of 18 per cent in the polls.

It may be true that Pasok shifted to the left during the campaign, with promises of an up to 3 billion stimulus package that would include above inflation wages and pension increases, higher taxes for the wealthy, a review of the privatisation of Olympic Airlines and the sale of the government’s stake in OTE, the telecoms firm, but this was not enough to precipitate such a decline.

Syriza, a rainbow coalition (well, a rainbow of dark green, crimson, scarlet, vermillion and cerise) of 11 different leftist parties and unaffiliated individuals, is dominated by the 17,000-member Synapsismos, itself a coalition that for the most part sits on the rightwing of Syriza.

The coalition almost collapsed over a leadership battle between Synapsismos and the smaller groups in its orbit as to who would head the grouping heading into the election. A bizarre compromise at the last minute had the two sides agree that no one would top the list.

This cringeworthy squabble further disillusioned supporters already disenchanted when the coalition’s leadership, which zigzags between radical language and moderate practice, and waffled over how to react to the three-week long riots last December. Abstentions were particularly high amongst the young.

Candyfloss in the rain

The results of the last weeks have shown that the deluge of gloom overwhelming Europe’s centre-left in the wake of the European elections is entirely warranted. Their support is melting away like pink candyfloss bought at a rainy May Day carnival, even in countries where they manage to eke out an election win. The only hope they have is to tack to the left, something that they steadfastly refuse to do or only do rhetorically for a four or five weeks’ election campaign.

But these elections also show that there are tremendous prospects for

a left to the left of bankrupt social democracy – so long as the party puts forward a confident professionalism and finishes with the sectarian quarreling endemic to this end of the spectrum. At a time where party tribalism has all but disappeared, voters who have few qualms about abandoning the social democrats that their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers voted for to try something new will hardly develop new reservoirs of compunction about moving on again should the new party prove to be a bunch of bickering muppets.

At the same time, the ease with which some left or green formations in

Europe have been willing to enter into coalitions with neoliberal social democrats – from Communist Refoundation in Italy to France’s Communists to Ireland’s Green Party – or are otherwise seduced by the siren song of the sensible centre, moves that repeatedly end in electoral disaster for the group concerned, are not strategic differences that can or should be papered over. They are fundamental to whatever the new left is to look like.

But if what finishes off social democracy is the abandonment of principles, why should anyone be surprised if voters jettison the far left as well when it abandons its principles too?


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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