Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The left strikes back

The three elections taking place in Europe this week will most likely signal the revival of the left in the political arena dominated lately by right wing, conservative forces. As recent as six months ago, most EU governments (all with the exception of one or two countries) were led by conservative parties, allowing Germany to impose an austerity pact with virtually no debate on whether growth measures should be part of any such program. But Germany is now finding itself cornered into discussing ideas as grand as a new 'Marshal Plan' for Europe, with most of its allies either directly challenging the German austerity program or just diplomatically admitting that the focus needs to change towards how to encourage growth.

And this is all because of unemployment. The high unemployment figures (today reaching the highest number in the EU in 15 years) point to the fact that most European countries are facing an imminent social explosion. Particularly bad are the youth unemployment rates, reaching an incredible 51.2% in Greece and 51.1% in Spain (where one in four working age adults are officially out of work - I do need to mention that I believe that the actual figure is lower due to unreported workers avoiding taxes). Voters are starting to see unemployment as the biggest problem the economy is facing, mostly because it went up even when the headlines were saying that the economy is getting better. The fact that bonus payments were in the headlines again, next to titles saying that big companies are reporting higher productivity on lower wages, did not help either. 

So it shouldn't be surprising that the left is hitting back hard. The right of the center parties have discredited themselves around Europe (with the notable exception of Germany- which still owes its success to the Agenda 2010 program of a social democrat chancellor) by not managing to keep the economy under control or have lost the support of their voters by imposing thought austerity measures to keep the economy afloat.

First test for Miliband

The local elections in the UK will be the first ones to signal the swing to the left. Labour will win back many of the mayoral seats that they have lost to the Conservatives at the previous elections but will fail to win the most important of them all, London. Boris Johnson's probable win in London underlines a deeper problem for the Labour leadership. The party has so far failed to impose a figure that can inspire the voters. David Miliband polls worse than David Cameron even though he is in opposition while Cameron is leading an austerity government.

The explanation for this is simple. Labour has not yet broken the compromise of the Blair period. They have not come up with new ideas since the mid 1990s. Ideologically, they are a party stuck in the last decade and politically they can not pull themselves together to present a proper leftist image for the future. Labour will win tomorrow's elections but not because they have triumphed in the electoral campaign, they will win because they are not in government.

Hollande to lead a quiet revolution

The most important election result will come from France. The presidential elections there are really the place where the dices will be rolled. A socialist victory will be a strong signal for the future of European politics. Hollande is right when he says that, if he wins, he will have a mandate to renegotiate the austerity package. He build his campaign on this and when he wins (because if he doesn't do something really stupid in the next two days, he will win) he will have to face Merkel on many issues (important thing to mention, he wants to introduce eurobonds, clashes with Berlin will be unavoidable).

Unlike the UK, the left will win in France because it deserves to. Hollande has run a very good campaign, focused on the right issues and refused to compromise in order to get the votes of Le Pen. He did not change his personal style and refused to enter a popularity contest, focusing on words and ideas and not gestures and emotions. I do not usually support leftist candidates but I do hope he wins. Sarkozy has acted like a fool during this campaign (I really don't think I am using harsh words here) and his flirting with the far right needs to cost him dearly. You don't play with fire in politics. He broke that rule.

Greece decides its own fate

The most unclear election result will come from Greece. It really will be a Greek tragedy because nobody will win. The two big parties will look like shadows of their former selfs, a third far left party might be asked to form the government according to ridiculous constitutional rules and a non-apologetic Nazi party will enter the Parliament. How they believe that the country will manage to be stable enough to implement the needed measures to restore growth, I simply don't know. To be honest, this election in Greece is like one in which they decide on their own suicide method.

The far right waits for its opportunity

As this election cycle has already shown, the populist  far right  has become an important political force in most European countries. It is not their time yet, the danger for a far right government to take control in an EU country is still very low. But if the left manages a comeback and take over enough governments to implement leftist ideas on the continent, it better make sure that they work. If they don't, the only credible option will be the far right groups. If the economy gets worse (and there will be a clash between the markets and left leaning governments), then the best opportunity for the far right forces would have arisen. Marine Le Pen's perfect political campaign (and I must admit she is a great campaigner, genius use of symbolistic, tone, message) would make her a real potential president. Greece's Golden Dawn is another group to keep our eyes on.

We are now entering the second part of the crisis. The financial crisis will turn political and social. And most of the austerity measures have not been yet implemented. It is important for politicians to realize the gravity of the situation and fix the problem. My view is that the answer is deeper integration, the idea of a centralized EU (not eurozone, but EU) government needs to be seriously debated. Solidarity also needs to become a central value as well, even if that means transferring German money to Greece (will not start rant about how much profit Germany is making in Greece on things that Greece doesn't really need, like weapons - Greece used to be the fourth largest importer of weapons in the world until 2006 and still is the biggest export market for German weapons in Europe, but the EU is not asking Greece to cut its army budget, its health budget seems to be less important in their eyes). Things like these make the Greeks mad, and mad voters vote for extremist parties.

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