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Socialism Today 130 - July/August 2009

Euro elections 2009

June’s European elections gave a snapshot, albeit often distorted by low turnouts, of the continent’s anxious mood and the distrust, if not hostility, to most governments. In a number of countries, like Britain, Greece, Ireland and Hungary, the ruling parties suffered dramatic reverses. But generally, with a few exceptions, this did not lead to a growth in support for genuinely left or even green forces. Instead, it was expressed in a further drop in voter turnout and increases for right nationalist or far-right parties. ROBERT BECHERT writes.

EUROPE IS SINKING into a deep recession, the worst since the 1930s. Just before the election the European Central Bank worsened its forecast drop in the 16 country eurozone’s GDP to a fall of 5.1% this year. Days after the election it was announced that in April industrial production in the eurozone was 21.6% lower than a year ago. After this rapid and deep drop there have been recent small signs of economic stabilisation, around a low point, in a few countries. But this is still fragile. There is the possibility of further downward lurches in some countries and the near certainty of unemployment continuing to rise as the ‘recovery’, when it comes, will be very weak.

Nevertheless, the mass of the population are fearful of the future while still hoping that this will be a short-lived episode. There is anger, especially at the bankers and financial speculators, and also a growing unwillingness among both the working and middle classes to suffer while corrupt politicians and the super-rich escape. Semi-hopes exist in some countries that government policies may be able to avoid the worst. But, so far, there is not a general understanding that we are passing through a fundamental turning point that is leading to a period of low growth, high unemployment and, in the future, sharp battles between the classes over the distribution of a smaller ‘national cake’.

This was the background to the general rebuff to most ruling parties and the search, among some of those who voted, for an alternative. Even the record low turnout in these elections showed a rejection of many of the established parties, alongside alienation from the EU and the correct understanding that the so-called European parliament was powerless.

While the gains for right nationalist and far-right parties have captured most headlines, the victory of Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) candidate who won one of Dublin’s euro seats, illustrated how it is possible to build conscious support on the basis of sinking roots in the working class, establishing a tradition of struggle, and arguing for socialist policies. Unfortunately, this was not the general experience in this election. Only the Left Bloc in Portugal and the Peoples Movement against the EU in Denmark, albeit on weaker political programmes, scored significant left successes.

Letting capitalism off the hook

FROM THE ONSET of this crisis it has been absolutely clear that it is one caused by the capitalist markets themselves. At no stage has it been possible for the capitalist classes to blame this economic calamity on the working class, the trade unions or ‘socialism’. Historically, it would have been expected that this would have resulted, possibly after a pause, in a surge in support for parties that stood opposed to capitalism, or which at least offered a different vision of society.

Already there have been large-scale protests, including demonstrations and one-day general strikes, in a series of European countries. Particularly in France, these took the character of a rising tide of opposition both to the capitalists’ attempt to unload the effects of the crisis onto the working and middle classes, and to the government. But other countries, like Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Spain, have also seen significant actions.

However, nearly all of the trade union leaders did not seek to build upon these first steps to create a wider movement. Instead, the protests were left as isolated actions, often simply used as safety valves to let anger be expressed or, in the case of some of the European Trade Union Confederation’s May demonstrations, as an attempt to rally electoral support for the social democratic parties.

This blunting of struggle was compounded by the fact that in a vast majority of EU countries there are currently no large or mass parties attempting to build serious opposition to the effects of this crisis. This is not accidental. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has argued since the early 1990s that, generally, most countries no longer have any mass or significant parties which oppose capitalism. This is the result of a combination of the capitalists’ ideological offensive after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the transformation of most of the former bourgeois workers’ parties (parties with a working-class base and a pro-capitalist leadership) into wholly capitalist parties.

This has been the capitalists’ only silver lining in this crisis. It has meant that, so far, the economic crisis has not given rise to large-scale active opposition to capitalism itself. In many European countries, workers, youth and sections of the middle class have proclaimed that ‘we will not pay for your crisis’. This call is a good starting point for building resistance to job losses, falling living standards and social cuts, but it is only a beginning. The capitalist crisis poses the issue of opposing the capitalist system itself and advocating a socialist alternative. But currently in Europe, apart from the CWI, there are very few forces in the workers’ movement actively linking together the fight against the onslaught of the crisis with building support for socialism. This opened the way for the right’s election successes.

In a number of countries, but not Belgium, centre-right parties gained, or at least suffered fewer losses than others. Often this was a result, as with Nicolas Sarkozy in France, of changing tack and criticising the excesses of capitalism or, as with Angela Merkel in Germany, massively extending government funding for short-time working to limit job losses.

Was it a rightward shift?

BUT ACROSS THE EU, parties further to the right gained, if not in actual votes then in percentage shares. Migration became a key issue with right-wing parties exploiting workers’ fears of migrants, from both within and outside the EU, taking jobs and ‘overloading’ services. Racism, hostility to Muslims, gypsies and, in Austria, semi-veiled anti-Semitism were significant factors in this election. Added to that, often it was only the far-right parties that expressed popular anger against the EU itself, both its undemocratic essence and its domination by the big European powers. At the same time, it needs to be noted that in some small countries, like Austria, hostility towards the EU appears recently to have fallen, at least for the time being, as many hope that the EU and, where relevant, euro membership can provide some protection from the worldwide economic storms. However, notwithstanding this, the Austrian euro-sceptic list of Hans-Peter Martin increased its support from 349,700 to 501,054 votes.

The result is that, generally on the surface, this election appears to show a rightward shift in Europe, and in some countries, definite advances for far-right parties. One of the most striking examples of this was the 769,000 votes, 17%, that the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders gained in the Netherlands in its first euro election, which made it the second largest Dutch party. In Austria, the total far-right vote, excluding Martin’s list, increased from 157,700 in 2004 to 490,900 (17.4%) despite the 2005 split in the Freedom Party (FPÖ). But right-wing nationalist and far-right parties also made significant gains in Britain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania and others.

However, in Germany where The Left party, despite its weaknesses, is still seen as the major opponent of attacks on living standards, the total national far-right vote hardly changed, although they did make gains in some of the local elections that took place simultaneously.

Capitalist commentators are partly able to describe the election results as a rightward shift because the official ‘socialists’, who often suffered losses in this election, were the former workers’ parties who still, for historical reasons only, call themselves the ‘socialists’ within the European parliament. These ‘centre-left’ parties have carried out neo-liberal policies and are increasingly seen as little different from the centre-right. Where these parties are in office, as in Austria, Britain, Germany and Spain, they suffered losses. In the first three of these countries, they scored record low votes – in Germany, despite the fact that the SPD tried to present a slightly more ‘worker friendly’ image.

In some countries where these parties are in opposition, they gained, as they are seen as a ‘lesser evil’. Thus in Sweden they came top with 24.6%, likewise in Greece with 36.6%. However, the Socialist Party (PS) in France, although currently out of office, suffered from the memory of what it had done while in government and, with 16.48%, was only 0.20% ahead of the new Green party.

In three countries the main right-wing government parties came top of the vote, but this was often with low numbers. In France, Sarkozy claimed success with 28% of the vote, ignoring the fact that 72% of those who voted opposed his party. While in Germany, Merkel’s CDU, despite retaining top spot, polled 1.34 million less votes than in 2004. The Polish government got the highest incumbent vote, 44%, but only 24% bothered to vote, meaning it had the active support of less than 12% of the electorate.

Very few governments retained their support. The Italian coalition government was one of those that did, winning 45%. But within this total, Silvio Berlusconi’s new PdL failed to reach its own target. The PdL lost nearly 2.85 million votes in comparison with its April 2008 general election showing, despite gaining a little compared with the last European election in 2004. However, its ally, the far-right Lega Nord, gained over 100,000 extra votes compared to last year’s general election and nearly doubled its 2004 vote to now get over 10%. Italy is one of the countries that illustrated a theme of this election, the weakness of a genuine socialist alternative, despite the raging capitalist economic crisis illustrated by the forecasts that Italian GDP will drop by well over 4% this year.

Berlusconi’s strength is fundamentally the result of disappointment with centre-left governments, most recently the late Olive Tree coalition, and the failure of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC). Founded in 1991, the PRC previously had significant support, not just electorally but in workplaces and society, but this was squandered as its leaders joined capitalist governments instead of fighting to win support for socialist polices. The result is that the PRC is near to extinction. Compared with 2004, the total ‘communist’ vote fell from 2.76 million to 1.03 million (8.47% to 3.37%), while the ‘soft left/green’ vote fell from 1.47 million to 955,000 (4.51% to 3.12%). But there is still a significant left bloc within Italy. The PRC itself, in alliance with the Italian Communists and European Left, won 1.02 million votes, while the new Communist Workers party won 166,000, although this is 42,000 less than it got last year. However, in total this support still provides a powerful basis for a party based on the genuine ideas of Marxism within Italy.

Voting for socialism

AGAINST THIS GENERAL background, the victory of the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins in Ireland was in marked contrast to what happened in the rest of Europe. The Socialist Party won 50,510 (12.4%) first preference votes in Dublin, more than doubling its vote compared to its 23,218 in 2004. This was a conscious vote for the Socialist Party, based on its programme and also its long fighting record, because it was running in competition with the opposition Irish Labour Party whose Dublin first preference vote also rose, from 54,344 to 83,741, and Sinn Féin whose outgoing MEP’s vote fell from 60,395 to 47,928.

Joe’s result was only comparable to the Left Bloc (BE) in Portugal that more than doubled to 381,000 votes (10.7%), just overtaking the Communist Party-led CDU alliance’s 379,500 votes, and the Peoples’ Movement against the EU in Denmark that increased its vote from 97,986 to 168,035 (7.18%).

Since the early 1990s, the CWI has argued that the transformation of the former social-democratic and ‘communist’ parties means that, alongside building the forces of socialism, steps are also required to rebuild independent workers’ political parties. Such parties could provide both a focal point for opposing the capitalist offensive and an arena in which socialist ideas can be debated.

Recent years have seen a number of attempts to form new left parties. In Britain, this election saw a significant step towards this when the main rail workers’ union, the RMT, sponsored an election alliance, No2EU-Yes to Democracy, which involved the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales), and the Communist Party of Britain amongst others, that gained 153,236 votes (1%).

But many of the new parties have not had the combination of serious activity and clear policies that are needed to construct real, lasting forces. It is a struggle to build new parties, particularly when the habit of voting for the former workers’ parties still exists and when they appear to be a ‘lesser evil’ or something which may be able to gain some concessions. However, a combination of events, experience and a new party’s activities can lay the basis for a significant new force, something Dublin showed in outline.

But, generally speaking, the new left parties did not make a dramatic impact. Partly this was because many had moved rightwards, refusing to campaign as socialists and not presenting their programmes and demands in a clear, determined fashion.

In Germany, the Left Party, in comparison with the former PDS in 2004, gained 390,000 votes and a small percentage increase to 7.5%, but this is around half the opinion poll figures it had been receiving a year ago and below its own ‘10% plus’ target. Similarly in Greece, the left alliance Syriza scored 4.7%, slightly up on its 4.16% in 2004, but way down on the 18% it had reached in opinion polls in 2008.

Unfortunately, a similar situation developed with the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France, which received 4.8% of the vote, compared with the 9% it registered in opinion polls when it was formed in January 2009. A key force in forming the NPA was the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), and the NPA’s 857,800 vote was nearly double the 440,100 votes (2.56%) that the LCR won in 2004 in alliance with the Lutte Ouvrière (LO). This time the LO stood on its own and gained 200,900 votes (1.2%).

However, the NPA’s 4.8% is disappointing and below what could have been possible. Ten years ago a joint LO/LCR list won 914,700 votes (5.18%), only 144,100 less than this time. In the 2002 presidential election the effective leader of the NPA, Olivier Besancenot, won 4.25% for the LCR. In this light the NPA’s 4.8% is small in view of this year’s wave of protests and two mass days of action in France. Nevertheless, counting together the NPA and LO votes shows a total much higher than the votes that their then common list won in 2004. The combined NPA and LO vote of 1,058,800 was very slightly ahead that of the Left Front of the Communist Party (PCF) and the new Left Party, which gained 1,058,400 votes, only a little higher that the 1.01 million that the PCF got on its own in 2004. The increase in the NPA and LO vote, especially when compared to the Left Front, shows the potential that exists in France for building a party committed, not just to struggle, but also to really fighting for socialism.

Possibilities and dangers

SOME OF THE ‘older’ left formations stagnated, like the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, partly in this case because of the party leadership’s move towards the right, and especially its participation in local government coalitions with capitalist parties and a nationalistic opposition to the EU. Such developments can spell doom for these new parties, whether it be in terms of virtual collapse as appears to be occurring with the PRC in Italy or in these parties simply becoming small formations with little prospect of developing as mass forces.

In some countries the weakness of these new parties meant that Green parties picked up support from potentially left voters, especially in France, where the new Europe Ecologie gained 16.2%, and also in Britain, Netherlands and the Walloon part of Belgium. The 7.1% won by the Pirate Party in Sweden, a party against state surveillance and defending free internet file sharing, was an indication of the anti-establishment mood, especially among young people.

Overall, these elections give an indication of the instability developing in Europe. The victory of the Socialist Party in Dublin and the doubling of the Left Bloc’s vote in Portugal, although with the more modest increases in left votes elsewhere, indicate the possibilities. The Dublin result shows that it is possible to win support for socialist ideas even when many workers and youth are voting for a ‘lesser evil’, while the Left Bloc’s result shows what is possible when an apparent ‘lesser evil’, in this case the Portuguese ‘Socialist’ Party, is in office and carrying out capitalist policies.

Many European workers, youth and members of the middle class are fearful of the future and, at the same time, hope that this economic crisis will soon pass. Unfortunately that will not be the case. As it becomes understood that high economic growth rates will not return, that mass unemployment will remain and that the capitalists will demand further cuts in living standards, the necessity to struggle will begin to be understood. Class battles are looming on the horizon. For example, Britain’s Conservatives, who are likely to form a government within the next eleven months, have said that Britain faces an ‘age of austerity’, in other words, sharp attacks on living standards that will, sooner or later, spark off resistance. These kinds of developments and battles will create real opportunities to build significant forces that can struggle for socialism. But this will not be automatic. It will require a clear programme and a conscious strategy to build. The significant far-right votes in this election are a warning that if this not done, reactionary forces will try to gain from the social turmoil that lies ahead.

 


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