European Elections in a Time of Crisis



The financial and economic crisis in Europe that has many wondering about the future of the Euro currency zone has not ended. Spain has now been sucked into the vortex and has been forced to go hat in hand, asking for a bailout loan. Italy may not be far behind. The “Troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, plus the conservative governments of Germany and the United Kingdom are holding fast so far to an austerity strategy, but the European grassroots is rebelling against this.  This rebellion is reflected in electoral results across the continent.


The purpose of this article is simply to survey recent election results in a number of European countries without getting into either too much detail or any complex analysis of their economic roots and implications.  While the corporate media have concentrated on Western Europe, interesting things have been happening in the former socialist countries too. The overall pattern, continent wide, is of a mass rebellion against austerity policies imposed by the ruling class as their solution to the crisis. But this does not add up to a radical lurch to the Marxist left. And while the left made advances, a disturbing trend in some countries is the rise of extreme right wing and even neo-fascist parties who seek to blame the crisis on scapegoats such as immigrants and foreign countries.


Iceland:  This tiny country (320,000 souls), not as of now a member of the European Union, was the first country to meet disaster because of the world financial crisis, when all three of its major banks collapsed. Amid massive street protests, in the 2009 parliamentary elections the Icelandic voters severely punished the government of Prime Minister Geir Haarde and elected a new majority of Social Democrats and Greens, headed by Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. There will be new elections for President on June 30 of 2012 and for parliament in 2013.               ,_2012. Meanwhile, a large proportion of the Icelandic public has been involved in consultations toward constitutional changes.


Portugal. Portugal is the “P” in the insulting anagram “PIIGS”, the Western European countries lately in greatest financial trouble. The Socialist Party government of Jose Socrates, which had worked to implement austerity measures dictated by the “Troika” consisting of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, was severely punished by voters in the elections of 2011, losing 23 parliamentary seats and thus being ousted from power. The new right wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho (of the misleadingly named Social Democratic Party, a right wing party in Portugal) has, of course, not been able to find a solution either, other than more austerity. In the elections, the dynamic Portuguese Communist Party, the PCP, and its “Green” allies, picked up a little strength, with 7.9 percent of the vote, but not enough to come into power. The PCP had previously offered a united front to the Socialist Party on an anti-austerity program, but Prime Minister Jose Socrates refused this. 


Spain: The government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) also found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to implement austerity measures, and out of any alternative ideas. In the elections of 2011, it was ousted from power and replaced by the right wing People's Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The United Left, (IU, or Izquierda Unida, which incorporates the Spanish Communist Party), with its Green allies, picked up strength to win 6.9 percent of the popular vote, their best total since the 1990s. Rajoy, like Passos Coelho in Portugal, simply piled on more austerity, leading to very large scale protest demonstrations. In 2012, there are signs that the Spanish electorate is feeling great buyer's remorse with Mr. Rajoy: On March 26, in regional elections in Andalusia in the South, both the Socialist Party and the United Left made electoral gains in this region hard hit by unemployment, ousting the PP from power. . The United Left also advanced in elections in the mining region of Asturias, on the Cantabrian Coast in the North of Spain, though the PP ousted the Socialists from power there also. Since then, the Rajoy government has announced the closing of Asturian coal mines, which has led to a very large scale miners' rebellion, with a general strike scheduled for June 18,  and anti-austerity protests and strikes in all major cities continue to give the government headaches.


Slovakia: Legislative lections were held on March 10 in Slovakia, again in the midst of turmoil about austerity measures. In this case, the center-left Socialist Party, which is headed by the new Prime Minister, Robert Fico, and which combines social democrats with former communists, did well, taking over the government from the conservative coalition of Iveta Radicova with an absolute majority and promising to back away from austerity policies, but to keep Slovakia within the European Union and the Euro zone. The Slovak Communist Party did not win any parliamentary seats.



France. France is by far the biggest of the European countries to hold national elections in the recent period. The right-wing former president, Nicolas Sarkozy (of the UMP, or Movement for a Popular Majority, the successor to General deGaul's old Rally for the Republic) had been working in tandem with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to tamp down any efforts to get away from the austerity program. So the French elections are particularly important. On April 22, 2012 France held the first round of its presidential elections, which showed an advance for the Socialist Party's candidate, Francois Hollande, and for the Left Front (Front Gauche) which is built around the French Communist Party, and its charismatic candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon.  However, the extreme right wing, in the form of the anti-immigrant National Front's poisonous but very effective candidate, Marine LePen, got a shocking 18% of the vote.  In the second round of the presidentials on May 6, Hollande won by 51.64 to 48.36 percent over Sarkozy, a solid win but hardly a crushing one. In the second round, it was also evident that to compete for Marine LePen's voters, Sarkozy and, to a lesser extent, Hollande, were not above adopting some of her anti-foreign rhetoric.


In the first round of the legislative elections, the left advanced more and the right retreated more. . The socialists may be able to form a parliamentary majority with their votes alone once the second round is finished on June 17. Certainly, they will have a majority in combination with the Greens and the Left Front.  This will give President Hollande the ability to push through changes both in domestic and international policy. The big question is whether he will try to moderate the pro-austerity positions of Germany's Chancellor Merkel, the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or if he tries, can succeed.


United Kingdom.  The British did not hold a national election this year, but the results of local elections on May 3 should serve as a warning to the right wing coalition of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democratic Party of trouble ahead. The Coalition swept into power in May 2010 after inflicting a stunning defeat on Gordon Brown' government, ending 13 years of Labour rule under Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair. But this year's local elections show that the tide may be turning. In a context of widespread street demonstrations against the government's right wing policies, the Conservative Party registered slight losses, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats had slight gains. Looking at results by region, very striking were major losses for the Conservatives in Scotland, where there was also a remarkable increase in the vote for the Scottish National Party, many of whose members advocate independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom. Labor also advanced in Scotland.   However, London's Conservative Party Mayor, Boris Johnson, defeated former Mayor Ken Livingston, an iconic figure of the left of the Labour Party.


Ireland: Ireland rapidly moved from “Celtic Tiger” in which everyone wanted to invest, to economic basket case, due to a mortgage bust which led to a bank crisis and then a government funding crisis, when the government of Brian Cowen moved massively to bail out the banks.  The governing coalition, of Fine Gael and the Greens was severely chastised by voters in the elections of February 25, 2011. The left parties, consisting of the Socialist Party, Sinn Fein and the Trotskyite People before Profit all picked up support, but not enough to enter government. The Communist Party of Ireland did not enter parliament either. The new government is an incoherent coalition of the Fianna Fail party of Prime Minister Enda Kenny and the Labor Party. This has led to more stalemate, and no big changes in policy. On May 31, there was a plebiscite in Ireland on the issue of the European Fiscal Compact, the European Union's proposed enforcement mechanism for the austerity policy.  The left (Communists, Socialists and Sinn Fein) all urged a “no” vote, while the government made dire predictions of disaster if the treaty were not approved. The result was a victory for the “yes” option, but hardly an enthusiastic one. 


Greece: All eyes have been on Greece for the last couple of years, as a massive government accounting scandal was accompanied by a financial crisis, and two highly controversial negotiated bailouts for the country. In exchange for the bailouts, the Greek government had agreed to some of the most extreme austerity measures on the continent, which are being felt very sharply by the Greek workers and masses, and which have produced militant demonstrations and strikes on an ongoing basis. In an attempt to placate creditors, the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) government of Prime Minister George Papandreou the younger stepped down and was replaced by a three party left-right-far right coalition of PASOK, New Democracy (Nea Demokratia) and LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally), headed by PASOK's Evangelos Venezelos.


Parliamentary elections were held on May 6.    The result was a parliament from which no governing coalition could be created. The three coalition parties: PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS all lost heavily. Even though it had pulled out of the coalition before the election and denounced the austerity measures, LAOS was completely wiped out, losing all its parliamentary seats. The left, however, advanced briskly. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) advanced slightly in parliamentary representation, picking up five parliamentary seats to a total of 26, but the Syriza Party, composed of former KKE people with some former Trotskyites and others rose to the position of becoming the second largest party in Parliament, zooming past PASOK. The disappearance of LAOS was more than compensated for, on the ultra right, by the appearance in parliament for the first time of a frankly neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi). It became quickly evident that no majority coalition could be made out of the results of this election, so a new election has been scheduled for Sunday June 17, in which the most likely result is that Syriza will pick up more parliamentary seats. But there is no knowing if a coalition government will be possible after the new election, either. The head of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, is a frightening figure to the Greek right and the European ruling class, because he and his party won't commit to maintaining the agreement on austerity that was part of the bailout agreement, though Tsipras says he wants to stay in the Euro zone and the European Union. 

A quirk of the Greek electoral system is that the party which receives the largest vote gets to name 50 extra members to Parliament, so the race between Syriza and the PP as to who will be the first party is a serious matter.


Germany. In provincial elections in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Nordrhein Westfalen the national right wing governing coalition, composed of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party suffered significant defeats at the hands of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).  The party to the left of the Social Democratic Party, the Left (Die Linke) did not do well, probably due to internal problems. A new populist formation, the Pirate Party, did well in several areas, but its ideology is not yet clear. Die Linke is a combination of members of the former Communist Party of the German Democratic Republic and people who have exited the SPD “stage left”.


Italy.  Local elections on May 6 and 7, with a runoff on May 20-21, saw the right wing parties that had backed former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Berlusconi's own People of Freedom Party and the Northern Leagues) punished with advances for the left and also the centrist Democratic Party. In the cities of Genoa, in the Northwest and Palermo, in Sicily, communists advanced but in coalition with more centrist parties such as “Italy of Values”. A new populist party, the Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, also did well, especially in Parma. As is the case with the German “Pirates”, the direction in which the Five Star Movement will now head is by no means clear, although it tends to take an anti-Euro stand.  But its growth is clearly a rebuke against tax increases, labor law “flexibility” reform measures and other austerity related measures of the current technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, as well as the past scandals of the former Berlusconi regime. 


Romania:  On February 6, 2012, the right wing government of Romania, headed by the  Emil Boc of the Democratic Liberal Party, fell on the issue of public discontent about austerity measures. Mihai Ungureanu, an independent politician, was named to replace Boc, but he lost a “no confidence” vote in parliament.  On May 6, a new coalition government was put together by Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party, to prepare for new parliamentary elections to be held on November 25. On June 10, local elections showed a distinct movement leftwards, with Ponta's forces gaining 47 percent of municipal council seats, and the former rightist government forces only 14.5 percent.  Efforts by the right wing government in Hungary to meddle in Romanian elections by trying to mobilize the large Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) minority in Romania's Transylvania area behind the right were a flop. A leftist was elected mayor of Bucharest. This seems to augur well for the center-left in the parliamentary elections. 


Serbia: The one country that so far this year has bucked the trend has been Serbia.  On May 6, parliamentary elections showed a gain for the Socialist Party, but a larger one for Tomislav Nikolic's “Progressive” Party, which is actually well to the right. These gains came at the expense of the centrist Democratic Party of former President Boris Tadic. A presidential election was also held on May 6 with a second round on May 20, in which Nikolic beat Tadic by a narrow margin, 51.12 percent against 48.88 percent.  Nikolic is considered a right wing nationalist, but he is also “pro Europe”.


In addition, there are some parliamentary elections coming up which bear watching:


NetherlandsOn April 23 of this year, the conservative government of the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's coalition of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Christian Democratic Appeal fell, again on the issue of austerity and the economic crisis. Although the government was brought down by the defection of one of its outside-the-cabinet supporters, Geert Wilders of the extreme right wing and populist-nationalist Party For Freedom, the left may benefit in the end.  Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September 12.  Early polling is mixed; it shows Rutte's coalition parties losing strength, Wilders' ultra right party  holding steady, the Socialist Party (to the left of the Labor Party) gaining strength quickly, but the Labor Party (PvdA) and Green Left (Groenlinks, a combination of the old Communist Party and the Greens) both also losing strength. 


Czech Republic. The leaders of the current right wing coalition in the Czech Republic admit that the austerity measures that they have been imposing are likely to bring retribution from the voters. At first, it appeared that the ruling coalition was falling apart which would have brought about new parliamentary elections, but this is now not certain. If current polling results hold and elections were held this year, the gainers would not only be the Social Democrats, but also the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, who are likely to have a parliamentary majority between them. This is a most interesting development, not least because the Czech government parties have been doing all they can to make the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and its youth league illegal and therefore ineligible to run candidates for office (similar things have been happening in other Eastern European countries).  In the past, the social democrats have refused to consider a coalition government with the communists. This could change.


There are also elections of one kind or another this year in the following European countries: Austria, Slovenia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Belarus. In addition, new parliamentary elections could be called in a number of countries if coalition governments fall apart or if the government loses a vote of confidence.


Overview of the dynamics


When the crisis hit Europe, starting with the Icelandic bank collapse, the initial reaction was to blame governments in power, whether of right or center-left, and “throw the rascals out”. Those social democratic governments, in Portugal and Spain, who had felt powerless to fight against the austerity measures which were imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the central Bank of Europe and the European Commission, went down, as did Greece's PASOK later. Both the communist left and its allies and the far right advanced. However, the voters did not give enough support to the communist and other left wing parties to move the governments farther to the left. Rather, the first result was to bring to power right-wing governments in some countries, and in others, coalitions which could not take decisive measures to deal with the crisis (Ireland).


The second stage of the electoral reaction to the crisis has been moving things more to the left, but except for Greece, not to the communist or left-socialist left. The presidential and legislative elections in France mostly posted gains for the Socialist Party, though the Front Gauche did advance in comparison to the last elections. In Italy, communists got their foot in the door in the local elections, but in united front tickets with other parties. In Germany, die Linke, to the right of the German Communist Party but to the left of the Social Democrats, has not done well this year so far, so gains have gone to the German Social Democratic Party.  In Ireland, the communists have not been able to run candidates but the left wing nationalist Sin Fein and the socialists have posted gains, though the whole of the left was defeated in the referendum on the European Fiscal Compact. In Slovakia, the party which won the election is a combination of social democrats and former communists, and seems likely to really move things to the left.


The elections so far have not expressed a mass or working class eagerness to get out of the Euro Zone, let alone the European Union. This was shown in the Greek elections, in which the KKE (Greek Communist Party) only advanced a small amount in parliamentary seats, while Syriza moved sharply forward, and the social democratic PASOK was severely mauled. 


And the fascist threat represented by groups like the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece is very real, though at present far from being on the point of taking power.


What lessons do these elections bear for us in the United States?


At one level, the situations of these countries are very different from those of the United States, due to different electoral systems. They have parliamentary systems in which the executive branch of government is wholly or in part (France, Germany) determined by the coalitions that can be built within their national legislatures. Some have runoff elections, and/or proportional representation systems.  Therefore for the communists and other left parties to run their own candidates against both center and left does not present as much of a danger of offering an opening to the extreme right as here (though such a scenario did arise in the French elections of 2002, when the National Front outpolled the Socialists in the first round of the presidentials, and everybody else was forced to support Chirac of the right wing Rally for the Republic in the second round to keep the fascists from taking power ). As we see now in the second round of legislative elections in France, the left can run its own candidates and forthrightly present its unadulterated program in the first stage, and then swivel around to support centrist forces in the second stage. That the European parties and voters are more disciplined than ours also helps.


But there are important parallels also, intrinsic to the fundamental nature of capitalism. We will see continued crises and intensified class struggle, born of the general systemic crisis of capitalism. The left can grow in these circumstances but so can the far right: The lessons of Germany and Italy between the World Wars should not be forgotten. Part of the struggle will continue to be over the interpretation of the reasons for economic crises. We will put forth our Marxist interpretations, while the extremist right will put for theirs: Foreign plots, immigrants, the godless, the Jews, the Muslims, and all the rest. The history of right-wing populism in this country creates the danger that as the crisis deepens, these kinds of interpretations, with corporate money backing them, gain increased credence at a mass level. We have to carry out all our tasks with this in mind.


This is serious business.

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