A balance sheet of the European elections
By François Sabado
The principal lessons of the European elections of June 7, 2009, are the following: massive abstention; progress for the right flanked by the far right; a collapse of social democracy; an increase in the votes for the ecologists; while the radical left, left reformists and anti-capitalists maintained their position, without making new advances, except in Portugal and Ireland.
Crisis of legitimacy
First of all, the recent European elections confirmed widespread popular abstention. The rate of abstention, at 57 per cent across the European Union, increased compared to the election of 2004, where it had already, at 54.6 per cent, beaten the previous record. The level of abstention decreased in nine countries and increased in 17. This level of abstention provides a fresh demonstration of the crisis of legitimacy of the European Union and the governing parties which situate their policies within this framework. It is the result of the peoples of Europe being marginalised in the process of building a European Union that is neoliberal and anti-democratic.
In spite of the “No” votes from the left in France, in the Netherlands and in Ireland in the referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty, the EU has maintained its neoliberal policies. Furthermore, far from constituting a protection against the economic crisis, the EU has shown itself to be incapable of coordinating a response to it. The massive abstention rate is a protest against these policies. Given the high level of abstention, this election can thus only give a deformed reflection of the real relationships of forces. That does not, however, invalidate the principal tendencies, in particular the progress of the right and the collapse of social democracy.
But as a result of this level of abstention, the major parties won only a limited number of votes and percentages of registered voters: in France, the UMP, President Sarkozy’s party, which came top of the poll, with nearly 30 per cent of the votes cast, won only 11 per cent of registered voters! This phenomenon can be seen in a number of countries. It indicates the volatility of the electorate and the crisis of representativeness of parties and institutions.
It is a sign of profound political and social instability in the countries of the EU, and therefore of the possibilities of sharp turns in the situation. Once again, that does not cancel out the progress of parties of the traditional and populist right, and of the far right, but it [puts it into perspective].
Progress of the right
The traditional right made progress in 16 countries and regressed in 11 others. It won in the bigger countries that it controls: Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and Hungary. In Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, as well as in Slovenia and Cyprus, the parties of the right also came top of the poll. The paradox of the situation is that the first stage of the crisis is reinforcing the parties of the conservative right, which have precisely been the most zealous in the application of neoliberal policies. The acceptance, the support or moderate criticism of the “stimulus programs” of the right by social democracy have benefitted the traditional right.
In this first phase of the crisis, the reactions of fear, anxiety and of “turning inwards”, in a situation of deepening of the crisis of the workers' movement and the left, have indeed reinforced the conservative right. This push of the right was accompanied in a series of countries by a rise in the forces of the populist right and the far right, in particular in the Netherlands, where the far-right, islamophobic and anti-European party of Geert Wilders obtained 16.4 per cent of the votes and four members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In Austria, Finland and Hungary, the forces of the far right, which unleashed campaigns against immigrants, also made progress. In Britain, the British National Party (BNP) obtained two MEPs, with 6.7 per cent of the vote. Greece also saw a breakthrough by the far right, with 7.2 per cent for LAOS.
This progress is related to the rise of xenophobic and racist currents in a series of countries. The idea of making immigrants a scapegoat for the economic crisis is spreading in Europe. Witness the anti-immigrant diatribes of the Northern League in Italy and the reactions in Britain, in certain sectors of the working class, around the slogan “British jobs for British workers”. The movement of public opinion in certain central European countries against the Roms (``Gypsies'') can give a certain social base to the populist right or the far right. The right as a whole made progress in 18 countries and regressed in nine others.
Losses for social democracy
The third of the principal lessons of the poll is that social democracy has suffered losses and in some cases has seen its vote collapsed. Whether in power or in opposition, it has lost ground. It regressed in 17 countries, was stable in Sweden and made progress in only nine countries -- Greece, Ireland and Malta, as well as the countries which were formerly ruled by the Stalinist bureaucracies, but there it was a particular kind of “social democracy”, coming from the former ruling parties: in Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. The European Socialist Party (ELP) thus regressed in the majority of principal countries of the European Union. The ELP lost ground in particular in the countries where social democracy is in power: in Britain, Spain and Portugal.
It experienced a real electoral rout in Germany, where it only managed 21 per cent of the vote, one of the poorest electoral results in the history of the Social-Democratic Party (SPD), not to mention the collapse of the Socialist Party (PS) in France (a drop of 13 per cent compared to the last European election in 2004). Social democracy is paying for its “social liberalism”. From concession to concession, from adaptation to adaptation, from “reformism without reforms” to “reformism with neoliberal counter-reforms”, the European socialist parties have become increasingly integrated into the management of the capitalist economy and institutions, and have experienced a relative loss of their social and political bases in the popular classes. That does not mean the end of the socialist parties. They can return to the fore, as a result of the deepening of the economic crisis or of social and political crises, but the increasingly strong tendencies towards their transformation from classic social-democratic parties into US-style democratic parties, a process already completed in Italy with the transformation of the ex-Communists into partisans of the Democratic Party, can spread through the whole of European social democracy.
Breakthrough for the ecologists
In a series of countries, the crisis of the big traditional apparatuses of the right and of the social-democratic left has left considerable space for several currents, from ecologist [Greens] to the radical left, via a whole series of left-reformist forces. In these elections, it was the ecologists who took most advantage of this space.
With nearly 60 MEPs elected, they have come out of the election strengthened. One of the most significant breakthroughs was that of the Europe Ecology list of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France, which obtained more than 16 per cent of the vote. The considerable increase in Green votes is the product of two phenomena: the aggravation of the crisis of political representation of the traditional apparatuses and, above all, the steadily increasing importance of the ecological question.
The problems raised by climate change and the unease based on the environmental questions naturally favoured the ecologists. These socio-political modifications must lead anti-capitalists to reinforce the ecosocialist dimension of their programmatic responses and their political intervention. The ecologists cover the entire political spectrum, from left to right. There are among the forces of the ecologists “ecosocialist” currents, there are “ecoreformist” currents, there are fundamentalist currents, but the political force which will dominate in the European Parliament, in particular around the figure of Cohn-Bendit, is a “centre-left ecology”.
Based on the institutions of the European Union, Europe Ecology in France and the European Greens are aiming for a broad alliance of socialist parties, “centres” and ecologists. In France such an orientation aims, on the one hand, at the transformation of the Greens, judged “too much on the left”, “too amateur”, into a party that unites ecologists, through a candidature at the next presidential election of Nicolas Hulot (an ecologist and a popular presenter of television programs on ecology on the TF1 channel) -- and on the other hand, at the construction of a centre-left alliance, involving the ecologists, the Socialst Party and the Movement of Democrats (Modem) of Francois Bayrou. Will the ecologists confirm their results in the next election? Can such projects be carried through to the end? Much will depend on the development of the crisis, on social resistance and on the capacities of the anti-capitalist forces.
If the ecologists saw an increase in their vote, the radical left (left reformists and anti-capitalists) did not make any new breakthroughs, except in Ireland and in Portugal.
Parties like Die Linke in Germany, the Socialist Party (``Tomato Paty'') in the Netherlands or the Left Front in France maintained or slightly reinforced their electoral positions. The Left Front –- involving the Communist Party ofr France (PCF) and the Left Party -- obtained 6.3 per cent of the vote, increasing by only 0.5 per cent the score of the PCF in 2004 (5.8 per cent), despite a good campaign.
In Germany, Die Linke hoped for a two-figure score, but only got 7.3 per cent of the vote. And already the right wing of the party, represented especially in the regions of East Germany, is reproaching Die Linke for having had a campaign that was “too much on the left”!
The Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC, Partito della Rifondazione Comunista) in Italy, with 3.23 per cent, no longer has any representatives in the European Parliament. In fact the crisis of the PRC led to the constitution of two blocs, one headed by Fausto Bertinotti (one of its former leaders), whose rainbow project with the Greens and the ex-Socialists, was oriented towards new alliances with the Democratic Party and the centre left, and another based on a “communist identity” project involving the continuation of alliances with the centre left in the governing executives of the cities and the big regions.
In Britain the results of the radical left were disappointing, with the list NO2EU getting 1 per cent, the same as the Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill.
Syriza (a coalition of the radical left) in Greece, by winning 4 per cent of the vote and getting one member of the European Parliament elected, did not achieve its goal of getting three MEPs elected. The Danish organisation Folkebevægelsen mod EU (Popular Movement against the EU), by centring its campaign against the European Union and affirming clear positions of defence of the rights of immigrant workers coming from the Eastern European countries, succeeded in re-electing its MEP, Soren Sondegard, who is also a member of the Red-Green Alliance and of the Fourth International.
Bucking the trend
Finally, we must underline the results of the Socialist Party in Ireland, which, after the campaign of the Irish “No” to the Treaty of Lisbon, sent an MEP to Brussels. In the local elections, which took place at the same time in Ireland, other active forces from the left, such as “People Before Profits”, also had some success.
But we must especially remark on the excellent results of the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal, which made a real breakthrough, winning 10.73 per cent of the vote and getting three MEPs elected. The advance of the Left Bloc is related to the collapse of the ELP and also to the absence of ecologist formations. In fact the success of the Left Bloc comes from the accumulated experience of its councillors and its MPs, from its ability to promote popular campaigns and from its ability to intervene as a global political alternative.
In France, the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) consolidated its electorate by obtaining 4.98 per cent of the votes cast (840,713 votes). It made progress compared to the results of the LCR-LO lists at the previous European elections in 2004 (+2.3 per cent) but did not manage to have an MEP elected, which led to a certain disappointment. But the NPA made real breakthroughs in the working-class and popular districts, getting scores of up to 10 per cent.
The evolution of the political situation, the ability of the trade union leaderships to channel and contain working-class combativeness and then to make it decline, had a negative effect on the level of struggles and slowed down the dynamic of the NPA.
For many organisations of the anti-capitalist left, it was their electoral baptism of fire. The Polish Party of Labour, Izquierda Anticapitalista in the Spanish State, ArbetarInitiativet (Workers’ Initiative) in Sweden, the LCR-PSL in Belgium, the Scottish Socialist Party, Antarsya (an anti-capitalist coalition) in Greece all conducted militant campaigns, but their results did not exceed 1 per cent. In spite of the weakness of these results, these organisations made advances in their construction: more influence, more implantation, more members.
These elections did not permit the formations of the radical left (left reformist or anti-capitalist) to make a leap forward on the road to constituting a political alternative. The polarisation to the right in these elections limited the emergence of forces to the left of the left, except in Ireland and in Portugal. But they remain a factor in the political situation in many countries of Europe.
What are, within this framework, the general political lessons?
1. These elections are the confirmation that the workers’ movement, the left and anti-capitalists are in a difficult situation. The first phase of the capitalist crisis is benefiting the traditional neoliberal right. We thought that the crisis would open up spaces for anti-capitalist ideas and policies. We have scored a series of points in the political and ideological debate. But we have not been able to transform our ideas into a material force. The right held firm and confirmed its policies. Contrary to what some people have explained on the way the crisis is being managed, there has been no Keynesian or neo-Keynesian turn. There has been more state intervention but it has been to consolidate neoliberal policies. The industrial restructures have reinforced the attacks against the workers: freezing or lowering wages in some companies (either directly or by an increase in working hours), reductions in social budgets, privatisation, new attacks against social welfare and pensions. That is what the workers and the unemployed of Germany must expect after the elections in September.
2. After some skirmishes, the level of struggles in Europe has not measured up to the attacks brought on by the crisis and by the policies of governments. There have been trade union days of action, mobilisations against lay-offs, industrial action and demonstrations by sectors of the trade union movement, as in Germany, but not struggles on a national level that could inflict setbacks on the policies of the employers and the governments.
In France, where the level of struggle and resistance remains strong –- the highest in Europe -- the mobilisations of several million workers were channelled into a succession of trade union days of action which exhausted the combativeness of the workers. Having adapted to the main lines of neoliberal policies, the trade union leaderships did everything to avoid confrontation with the employers. The result was to provoke demobilisation and confusion.
3. Although the present European political conjuncture is difficult, this is part of a new political period which is heavy with tension, with social and political contradictions. The main outlines of the period have not been called into question. We are going to see twists and turns and new political conjunctures. In the first place, we are at the beginning of the crisis. It will last and it will deepen. Its systemic dimension, its multiple economic and ecological dimensions will lead to changes in the political situation.
Although one cycle of struggles and of social reactions, corresponding to the first year of the crisis, is ending, there will be other reactions, further resistance and more social struggles. Of course nothing is automatic. The crisis will not lead mechanically to social struggles, and even struggles do not lead naturally to a rise in political consciousness. There is polarisation, and we can see it today, on the right and on the left, and even between the radical left and the far right. But we should not forget our analysis of the crisis as a global crisis.
The radical left has not been able, at this stage, to present a credible political alternative, but the situation of the left after these elections indicates, more than ever, than what is at stake is an overall reorganisation. The PS and entire sectors of social democracy will be led either to make alliances with centre-left forces, including ecologists, or will themselves undergo qualitative mutations that will accentuate their “social liberalism”.
The trade union leaderships are undergoing a process of increasing integration into the mechanisms of managing the crisis. The spaces created by the social-liberal evolution of the traditional left call for audacious policies of anti-capitalist unity.
4. We have to hold to our course, taking into account the difficulties of the present conjuncture. Faced with the attacks of the right and the retreats of the workers’ movement we must persist in our policy of unity of action -- the unity of action of the entire left, of the entire workers’ movement against the capitalist plans -- but also to give more place in the profile of our organisations, in their proposals, to anti-capitalist unity. We have to take up with more force the proposals of anti-capitalist unity. This unity has a content: the response to the economic and ecological crisis. The radical left must be a left of struggle, but it must especially be a left of answers to the crisis. Immediate demands must be articulated with answers to the crisis, in the field of distribution of wealth, public and social property rights across the economy and not only in “public services”, in a new mode of production and consumption based on social needs. From this point of view, our ecosocialist responses are central.
Lastly, the anti-capitalist left must assert itself as a party defending a governmental alternatives centred on immediate proposals (“If you were in power what would you do first?”) and also on new democratic practices and institutions. Within the left, we have to relaunch the debate on alliances and perspectives of power, combining unity of action against the right and the employers and anti-capitalist unity. Confronted with the offers of alliances from social democracy (or even, as in France or Italy, of “common houses”) we have to counterpose anti-capitalist unity to social-liberal unity.
To reiterate the two possible options in the coming situation: social liberalism or anti-capitalism; and to challenge all the formations situated on the left of the left on this question. “Do you choose unity with the social liberals or anti-capitalist unity?” The question of the independence of anti-capitalist formations with respect to the traditional leaderships of the left remains a decisive criterion for reorganising the left.
5. Within this framework, we must continue to construct an anti-capitalist pole in Europe. Because one of the points of support to relaunch activity, encourage the unity of action of the entire left and continue the strategic and programmatic discussion, is the existence of the organisations of the anti-capitalist left. Of course, their development is unequal, but their responsibility is decisive. Over and above the present conjuncture, they have accumulated forces and experience, and some of them, such as the Portuguese Left Bloc or the French NPA, have an electoral and political audience which makes them credible forces to the left of the PS.
But a series of significant organisations -- like the British and Irish revolutionary organisations (the Socialist Workers Party and the SP), left currents inside and outside Die Linke in Germany, the anti-capitalist currents in Greece, Sinistra Critica in Italy and Izquierda anticapitalista in Spain, the Polish Party of Labour (PPP) -– represent forces which it is necessary to take into account in order to advance along the road to a new anti-capitalist force in Europe.
[François Sabado is a member of the executive bureau of the Fourth International and an activist in the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France. He was a long-time member of the national leadership of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). This article first appeared in the July-August edition of International Viewpoint, magazine of the Fourth International.]