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The Euro Elections: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

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THE GOOD

With the exception of Greece, much of the coverage of the European Parliament elections held 22-25 May across the EU’s 28 member countries has been understandably focussed on the rise of the extreme right. However, the poll saw an advance of the radical left in many of the countries of the ‘periphery’ that has been most hit by neo-liberal austerity policies.

Greece

The most significant positive result was in austerity-and-recession-capital Greece, Syriza, led by EU Presidential candidate Alex Tspiras topped the poll. Syriza garnered 26.5% of the vote, against the ruling conservative New Democracy’s 22.7% and the 8% of its coalition partner PASOK (once the country’s main social democratic party until it become enslaved to the hated IMF-EU-ECB Troika) with its ‘centre-left’ alliance Elia.

Syriza’s advance was foreshadowed in its impressive local election performance earlier in the month where it won the governorship of Attiki, the country’s largest region.

As Panagiotis Lafazanis, a Syriza MP, told Bloomberg: “It’s the first time in Greece’s political history that a party of the radical left wins an election with a real margin. The result of the Greek election brings hope to the country and is positive for Europe.”

Coupled with the 6% score for the communists (KKE) – who, however, refuse to work with Syriza – that’s a third of the electorate clearly on the ‘transformational’ Left.

Syriza immediately called for early elections – a move rebuffed by Athens.  But the ruling coalition may be not be able to resist for long.

ND and Pasok are the two parties which have governed inter-changeably since the return to democracy in 1974 but while before the austerity-crisis their combined vote would have been something like 80%, together they now only command some 30% share of the vote.

Spain

In Spain, home to six million unemployed and a 130 billion euro bank bail out, the non-socialist left vote rose to 18%.

The communist backed United Left (Izquierda Unida) added 900,000 votes, bringing its total to 1.5 million, or a 10% share, its best result since 1996. And the Republican Left of Catalonia is the wealthy north eastern region’s top vote-getter for the first time since 1930s.

But the big surprise was the success of a three-month old party linked to the country’s ‘indignados’ occupy movement, Podemos (We Can), which scored a remarkable 8% after a low budget but high profile campaign led by a 35-year-old political science professor and TV presenter Pablo Iglesias.

Both United Left and Podemos agree on cancelling most of the debt, halting evictions, nationalising subsidised banks and ending privatisations, so it made sense that following the election results United Left sought an alliance with Podemos. However, there may be resistance to this among Podemos supporters in Spain’s Occupy movement who will be suspicious of United Left’s co-operation with the discredited Socialists in the Andalucia region.

In Europe, Podemos and its ponytailed leader say they want to work with Greece’s victor, Syriza. Some believe it will focus more on an a-political anti-establishment approach, typified by Italy’s Five Star Movement.

The elections were a massive blow to the Socialist Party whose support dropped to just 23% down from 39% five years ago. Party chief Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has resigned after admitting he’d failed to provide an adequate response to the onslaught from the ruling Popular Party of Mariano Rajoy.

Combined with the announcement that dissident Party of Catalan Socialists members are planning to go it alone in the 2015 municipal elections, Rubalcaba’s resignation has led to much internal factional turmoil within the party, underlining the sense that Spanish social democracy – which kicked off the austerity fest that was subsequently sharply accelerated by Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party – is now fighting for its survival.

But both main parties of Spain’s 35 year old democracy have suffered. The ruling Popular Party may have claimed victory but it lost 2.6 million votes (16 percentage points), compared to the 2009 European parliament elections and 6.8 million votes (18.5 points) compared to the 2011 general elections in which it unseated the Socialists. Together they now command less than 50% of the vote.

Portugal

In Portugal, the radical left vote topped 17%, with the Communist -Green coalition (CDU) emerging as the third political force with 12.68 % of the vote and three seats. For the PCP, the most euro-skeptic of all the continent’s radical left parties with the exception of the KKE in Greece, this is the best result for 25 years. The General Secretary of the PCP Jeronimo de Sousa,  said the electoral setback suffered by the government “clearly shows it was censured by the Portuguese people,” and called a confidence vote on Friday.

The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda), less Euroskeptical than the communists, saw its share of the vote fall to 4.7%, from 10.7% in the previous European poll.

The Socialist Party (PS), which has upped its anti-austerity message in recent times despite being a co-signatury to the hated 2011 Troika ‘Memorandum’ that imposed on Portugal one of Europe’s most brutal stablization programmes, won last Sunday’s election. It garnered 31.5 % of the vote. That compares 27.7 % for the coalition of the right-wing Social Democratic Party and CDS party. The two parties together recorded their worst ever score after proving more zealous in its slash and burn deficit reduction policies than the zealots in Brussels and Frankfurt.

However, the advance of the socialists over the coalition government, has not only been limited by the rise parties to its left but the Party of the Earth (MPT), an ecologist movement of right-wing origin calling for greater food ‘sovereignty’ and which campaigned for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty of 2007 that introduced new curbs on national sovereignty, particularly on budget setting. On the back of its green and Euroskeptic-lite politics, it won a surprise 7.1% of the votes.

For the Socialists, their victory was too narrow and this has triggered a war of leaders in the Socialist Party, including heavyweight, Mayor Antonio Costa of Lisbon, who said this week he was ready to challenge party leader Antonio José Seguro.

Europe’s core

France, on the other hand was a real disappointment for the Front de Gauche alliance between the communists and the Left Party which polled just 6.3%, a big fall from its 11% for Jean Luc Melenchon in the Presidential elections in 2012 although on par with its showing in the subsequent national elections. But they did nowhere near as badly as the Francois Hollande’s Socialists who garnered less than 14 per cent, a total humiliation after two years of broken promises to reverse austerity.

In contrast Germany’s Social Democrats (27.3%, a leap from 20.8% in 2009) did swimmingly. But so did their Grand Coalition partner the Christian Democrats (35.3%, down from 37.9%). An unsurprising result in a nation that has been profiting from the Eurocrisis.

In this context, the 7.4% score of the radical Left Party (Die Linke), while below its performances of 2009 (7.5%) and 2013 (8.6%), could be considered a respectable performance. But it won’t likely be a worry for Chancellor Merkel and her friends down the road in the European Central Bank offices in Frankfurt who will instead be concerned about the 7% for Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland). This right-wing party wants Europe’s superpower to withdraw from Euro currency, not only to protect Germans but because it impoverishes the countries in Europe’s south that have less competitive economies.

This analysis is shared by Die Linke’s founder ‘red’  Oskar Lafontaine, although like its sister parties in the European Left, Die Linke does not favour Euroexit but a series of reforms – from capital controls to a European Central Bank that provides cheap loans to the real economy rather than private banks and an end to lethal deficit reduction targets –  to restore the ideal of ‘social Europe’.

Elsewhere in the core of Europe, meanwhile, the Dutch Socialist Party garnered 9.6%, up two points from the previous Euro contest, confirming its local elections score earlier this month, where it doubled its share of the vote to 10%. The party’s manifesto pledged it would work to reverse the Netherlands’ status as a ‘province of superstate Europe’.

THE BAD

The nastiest news in the election – although well trailed in polls – was the advance of the far right, most notably the victories of the xenophobic and racist National Front (FN) in France (26%, 24 MEPs, Members of the European Parliament) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain (26.8%, 24 MEPs).

There was also a surge in support for formations that directly identify as Nazi or fascist—like the Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and the National Democratic Party (NDP) in Germany. From scoring 0.46% and 23,566 votes in the 2009 European Parliament elections, Golden Dawn has risen to 9.38%, with hundreds of thousands of supporters.

Respectable xenophobia is also becoming very popular. The Danish People’s Party (DFP) topped the poll in Denmark; the New Flemish Alliance (NVA)—specialist in scapegoating migrants and French-Belgian welfare recipients—won in Belgium (16.35%); and the racist Austria Freedom Party (FPÖ) came in third with a score 19.7%, as did Dutch islamophobe Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) (13.2%).

Le Pen

Marine Le Pen’s victory in France, long the engine of Europe and European popular democracy, is the scariest of all, although the pollsters predicted it pretty accurately. Pundits point out that while the left electorate stayed home, the Front National’s faithful turned up at ballot boxes in droves. Marine also stole many votes from the right-wing UMP, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in what has been a steady process of transfusion of votes between the two parties.

The daughter of FN founder Jean Marie Le Pen – the Holocaust denier –  is enjoying the fruits of her efforts at detoxifying her party, although its a feat achieved through spin rather than reflecting reality, aided in no small part by by saturation press coverage.

And at the same time she’s benefiting from a clear focus on working class material concerns about jobs and living standards, as well as championing national sovereignty and associated issues of identity. Her beef is with Europe, the free movement of capital and labour and  its austere and rigid one-size-fits-all monetary and fiscal policies that has turned a project led by France into one against France.

Le Pen says she wants France out of the Euro and is ready to call a referendum on EU membership if she doesn’t get it, or indeed the restoration of French border controls, the primacy of French law, and what she calls ‘economic patriotism’, the power for France to pursue ‘intelligent protectionism’ and safeguard its social model.

It’s in her fingering of EU elites, recognising some fundamental faults with the EU and winning the battle for the working class vote that the poor showing for the socialists and radical Left Front must be understood.

THE UGLY

It is difficult to say what the worst aspect of EP poll was. But certainly, one disturbing fact was that the party of abstentionists was the real winner. Non-voters topped the polls with an average of 57% across Europe. They scored particularly stunning victories in the new EU states to the east Slovenia (79% non-voters) Czech Republic (81%) and Slovakia (a whopping 87%), which either means they love their new western European masters, or are thoroughly disaffected like the western subjects. In the UK, non-voters also cleaned up, with 66%.

The other ugly fact is that despite their losses, the conservative and social democratic forces that have for the past several decades been leading Europe in the interests of the banks and corporate lobbies, remain in control and, as the first post-election EU summit of pious, meaningless soundbites showed, have every determination to carry on regardless.

The ruling European People’s Party (EPP) lost 61 seats, down to 213 seats in the 751-seat European parliament, while the centre-left S&D came second, but did less well than expected. Together the two parties hold a slim majority (403) in the 751-strong EP, under current group projections, but it is still a majority (54%). Add that to the centre-right Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which has also declined, from 10.8% to 8.5%, then its essentially little change at a European level.

But these elections are far more about the impact in individual members states than the European Parliament, which although it has increased powers, cannot push through anything without EU member state governments agreeing it too.

ITALY

And that’s true for Italy, which broke with the European trend. The Democrats – described as ‘centre-left’ but pursuing neoliberal reforms with more enthusiasm than any of their sister parties – stole an historic 40% of the vote, a success not achieved by any party since the early days of the Christian Democrats in the 1950s. Indeed as the party is the result of an ‘historic compromise’ between the heirs of the right-wing party of Andreotti and those of the other great movement – the communists of Togliatti and Berlinguer– this perhaps shouldn’t surprise us at all.

Observers say Democrat voters, swayed by the fresh face at the top, have returned to the fold after flirting with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which failed to maintain its no.1 spot as the former comedian Grillo had promised. Although the bearded loud-mouth, as he’s now oft-described, shouldn’t be written off, as he still commands a fifth of the vote and holds second place on the back of an anti-corruption, anti-establishment and Euroskeptic platform (he’s called for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro).

Renzi’s moment

No doubt Renzi’s newcomer status, his positioning as an party outsider and his tax cuts for those on lower incomes just ahead of the polls have helped his fortunes. But becoming the largest delegation in the European Parliament is no substitute for power in Rome. And in the Italian capital co-operation is needed from the ever unreliable Silvio Berlusconi, who is undeterred by community service for a tax fraud conviction and, although now trailing third, is still enjoying 17% backing, thanks in part to a media stranglehold Renzi won’t touch, as well as continued attacks on Germany and Chancellor Merkel for lording it over Italy.

What’s for sure, the vote for Renzi isn’t a vote for neo-liberal ‘reforms’ as the BBC would have it – but it is a vote for change. Unemployment in Italy is at a record 13% and youth joblessness is an epidemic, as it is in Greece and Spain. And as in 17 other states, wages have been slashed, wealth inequality continues to widen, essential public services cut to shreds or otherwise sold off, along with other public assets, to privateers. And still the public debt is as big or bigger than ever.  The question is how long will it take before Italians, just like their fellow Europeans are starting to realise, that they won’t get the change they want – and that they are just been taken for a ride.

Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com

Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.

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