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An eventful week across Europe began with the emphatic victory of a rightwing coalition in Italy’s parliamentary elections. After a string of successes in 2021 and early 2022, are left-leaning European political parties once again in retreat?
First, in case you missed it, I invite you to read a delightful dispatch from the FT’s Akila Quinio in Paris on why it often feels better to stick with the formal “vous” in certain French conversations, rather than following a recent trend of using the intimate “tu”.
Or, as Sir Keir Starmer, the UK’s Labour opposition leader, might say to embattled Conservative prime minister Liz Truss: “Après vous, le déluge!”
Between September 2021 and last January, the European left seemed to be on something of a roll.
When Norway’s centre-left regained power a year ago, it marked the first time in 62 years that all five Nordic countries had a leftwing prime minister at the same time. Then Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats won Germany’s elections and formed a three-party coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats.
Finally, Portugal’s Socialists won an absolute majority in snap elections in January, making them the only social democratic party in western Europe able to govern without coalition partners. A leftwing government already held power in Spain.
These victories indicated that the left was recovering from the punishment received at voters’ hands either for acquiescing in fiscal austerity after the post-2008 financial crisis, as in southern Europe, or for passing labour market and welfare reforms, as in Germany.
Some commentators surmised that the left was benefiting from a widespread public mood during the Covid pandemic that, as Politico’s Paul Taylor put it, “a stronger, more protective state, better public healthcare and increased government spending” were the order of the day.
Yet the left’s revival was incomplete at best, vulnerable to reversals at worst. France’s presidential election in April was an early sign — as in 2017, no leftist candidate made it into the knockout round.
In the chart below, prepared by André Krouwel and Nick Martin for the London School of Economics, we see that social democratic parties in western Europe have scarcely arrested the electoral decline into which they fell around the turn of the century.
“The patchy recovery of social democratic parties has been driven by the tactical considerations of voters,” Krouwel and Martin wrote in March. “Meanwhile, to the left of social democracy, Europe’s radical left is facing its biggest electoral crisis in a generation.”
To that, let me add — don’t forget central and eastern Europe. Elections in the Czech Republic last October toppled billionaire premier Andrej Babiš — but leftwing parties recorded their worst result since the end of communism in 1989 and won no parliamentary seats at all.
In 2015, the same fate befell Poland’s left. It scraped back into parliament four years later but, according to opinion polls, is on course for another terrible result in next year’s elections.
Even the Nordic area isn’t an impregnable stronghold for the left. As in every Swedish election for more than a century, the Social Democrats came first in the September 11 election — they even slightly improved on their 2018 share of the vote. But the election was fought on issues such as violent crime, immigration and social segregation, to the benefit in particular of the rightwing nationalist Sweden Democrats.
What, then, of Italy?
Much commentary on Sunday’s elections homed in on Giorgia Meloni’s nationalist, anti-immigrant Brothers of Italy, now the country’s most popular party. But the rightwing coalition didn’t win by a landslide. It took about 44 per cent of the national vote — a better result than in the 2013 and 2018 elections, for sure, but worse than in 2001, 2006 and 2008.
Two things happened. First, there was a realignment of votes within the rightwing bloc. Brothers of Italy raced ahead. The League and Forza Italia, its coalition partners, fell back.
Second, the left — in which I include the Five Star Movement, which has veered to the left from its anti-establishment roots — suffered badly from factional disputes and personality clashes that prevented it from forming a united electoral front. The left might well have lost, anyway, but its splintered vote opened the door to the right’s triumph.
This was in striking contrast to, say, Italy’s 2006 election. In that contest Romano Prodi led a multi-party, left-leaning coalition to a narrow victory over Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing alliance.
Soon after Sunday’s vote, Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic party, fell on his sword and promised to step down. In a country where the right has dominated most governments since 1948, the lesson for the Italian left is that broad coalition-building — plus a credible electoral programme — is a precondition of victory at the polls.
For the European left in general, the problem remains that the factory-based, unionised working class that formed much of its historical base has been shrinking. Both the old and the new working class — unskilled service workers in low-paid jobs — often do not share the progressive cultural outlook of the white-collar middle classes who are the face of the modern left.
This doesn’t mean the left can’t win elections — it can and does. But it needs to look as if it will be competent in power. It needs to avoid internal squabbles. And it needs to show courage in addressing questions of culture and identity that are meat and drink to parties of the traditional and radical right. Let me know what you think at [email protected].
The death of the European centre-left — an analysis by Andy Wang for the Harvard International Review
“Buying sterling here is like licking honey from the razor’s edge” — Hugh Hendry, founder of Eclectica Asset Management, a London-based investment fund, describes the scepticism in financial markets about the UK government’s debt-fuelled plan for growth
Tony’s picks of the week
Three Turkish state banks — Halkbank, VakıfBank and Ziraat Bank — have halted the use of a Russian payment system after Washington put pressure on Ankara not to act as a conduit for Moscow to evade US sanctions, the FT’s Laura Pitel reports from Ankara
Austrians vote in a presidential election next weekend: in 2016 a far-right candidate came close to victory, but this time the moderate incumbent Alexander Van der Bellen is favourite to win. Corinne Deloy of the Fondation Robert Schuman has the details.
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